At the Quality 16 and Showcase

4 out of 5 Stars

There’s something fascinating about the antiquity and rituals of churches. They are stuffy, confusing and kind of creepy; they produce the same over-arching sensations felt when watching “Doubt.”

There are two reasons to see “Doubt.” First, there’s never been such an accurate depiction of Catholic schools in popular film. Second, “Doubt” arrives at dueling cultural cornerstones, setting itself right after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and opening now, at a time of Catholic bewilderment.

A minimalist prodding of ideas realized with great performances, “Doubt” is a sensationally provocative film. Based on the award-winning play by John Patrick Shanley (“Moonstruck”), “Doubt” is a series of circumstances, incidents and revelations at a Bronx Catholic School in the fall of 1964. At its core, it’s about adults in conflict over something that may or may not have happened to Donald Miller (newcomer Joseph Foster), a young African-American student.

Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Charlie Wilson’s War”) is a new priest at the school with a liberal approach to sermonizing kindness and understanding. Still, he adheres to old-school assumption of priority over nuns and has a penchant for eerily long nails.

Meanwhile, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep, “Mamma Mia!”) is the school’s principal and resident old-guard nun. Stern, strict and infinitely terrifying to the parish, she’s not quite a ruler-swinger, but her powers of guilt and accusation more than compensate for her aversion to physical punishment.

When suspicions arise that Donald was molested by Flynn, questions and accusations are tossed about by all. But, much like faith itself, “Doubt” isn’t about finding answers. It’s title doesn’t mince words.

Everyone knows about Catholic guilt, but “Doubt” presents a lesser known trait: Catholic intrusiveness. A mix of broad humor and deadly serious drama, “Doubt” gets its ideas out any way it can. Starting off as a historical pastiche of maudlin Catholicism, writer-director Shanley understands the humor of private schools and their rules.

According to Aloysius, ballpoint pens are ruining penmanship in this country and a photo of the Pope at the front of class is reverent, as well as a good mock-mirror through which to watch the students. The manners, relating to meddling and formality, are fascinating because they’re so true. For outsiders it’s funny and unusual, but for Catholic school refugees, it’s almost too honest.

But it’s the intrusiveness that leads to a series of religious quandaries and tested fights over what exactly happened to the boy. Did Flynn do something? Or is Aloysius over-reacting? The drama, which shouldn’t be elaborated upon too heavily, is breathtaking. As an audience member, you can never take sides or make assumptions because you never know what to make of anyone in “Doubt.”

It’s the kind of film that the Academy drools over. In immaculate performances, Hoffman, Streep and Adams each put themselves at differing points in their faiths. But the real runaway winner will be Viola Davis (“Disturbia”) as Mrs. Miller, Donald’s mother. Her beautiful soliloquy about her son is worth the price of admission alone. It transcends the simplicities of religion to show how faith never gives perfect answers.

With a film that has such brave ideas, presented ornately and with historical thoroughness, the only letdown may just be the direction. Shanley, an Oscar-winning writer, directed here and pangs of first-time decisions are apparent throughout. Tilted angles, a bit too much screaming and an all too debatable conclusion make “Doubt” imperfect. Just like any religion.

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