Doubt opens Thursday throughout the Triangle

Amid a surfeit of murky epistemology, the narrative high point in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt comes during an exchange between Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the stern Mother Superior at St. Nicholas Church in the Bronx, and Ms. Muller (Viola Davis), the mother of a 12-year-old who is also the school’s lone African-American student. Sister Aloysius informs Ms. Muller about her suspicions over a possible inappropriate relationship between her son Joseph and the church’s charismatic new priest, Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Wearing the burdens of keeping her factory job and maintaining a stable household as if they were lead weights filling the pockets of her winter overcoat, Ms. Muller eschews conventional morality in a tearful response that is both unconscionable and sadly understandable.

If only the rest of this film adaptation of Shanley’s award-winning play were as daring and audacious. Armed with little more than furtive observations reported by a young, idealistic nun (Amy Adams), together with her own inflexible intuition, Sister Aloysius hurls herself into rooting out Father Flynn’s purported guilt. Set in 1964, the contrast between the two antagonists is stark and intentional: Sister Aloysius’ traditional, pre-Vatican II leanings versus Father Flynn and his more progressive ecumenical ideals. Their cloak-and-dagger jousting serves, at least for a while, as a proxy for the ongoing conflict within the Catholic church.

The doubts in Doubt are many: Father Flynn’s guilt or innocence; the viability of the church’s hierarchy; the influence of God over the transgressions of mankind; etc. Unfortunately, the mysterious truth behind Flynn’s relationship with the underage student, which is not meant to be fully known, becomes much clearer due to Shanley’s telegraphed direction. If this isn’t intentional on Shanley’s part, then it’s a glaring error. Despite this clumsiness, I was fascinated with Flynn’s inability to grasp his immorality while tacitly acknowledging immoral acts, along with the notion that his refusal to acknowledge Sister Aloysius’ reproach might be because she represents the repressive authority figures he has suffered his whole life.

Other the other hand, if the writer-director is trying to level the moral playing field, he fails miserably: In one corner, we have a didactic disciplinarian with an aversion to everything from ballpoint pens to “Frosty the Snowman,” while in the other we have … a pedophile.

Although Doubt never shakes the stagy strictures of its source play (especially Sister Aloysius’ perfunctory declaration during the abrupt final scene), Roger Deakins’ gorgeously austere cinematography and a uniformly fine cast contribute to the film’s overall success. Streep and Hoffman, in particular, deserve praise for their portraits of pitch-perfect minimalismthe caliber of their performances is the one thing that is never in doubt.