- John Patrick Shanley
- Reviewed by
- Gon Curiel a.k.a. Groucho
- Review date
- Wednesday, February 25, 2009
I don’t know whether this is based on fact or not, but the film is dedicated to the “real” Sister James, a nun I’ve heard Shanley met as a youngster, who probably told him her story. Sister James is played here by Amy Adams, that sweetest of creatures, perfect as a candid nun who can’t bear to see evil and looks elsewhere as soon as she gets the chance. In 1964, facing the possibility of her priest abusing a boy in the school attached to his church, Sister James is obliged to talk about it with her superior, the school’s Principal, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), as if to clear her conscience, though the possibility of defaming the father strikes her later as a greater sin.
Streep plays a peculiar character here, also a merit of Shanley’s brave writing. She’s unlikable in general, but particularly at first, when introduced as a strict figure of discipline quite feared by the kids she rules with a firm hand. One can only guess she’s the villain while Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), that sympathetic fat fellow, is the hero, or perhaps the victim of Sister Aloysius’s bitterness. Nothing farther from the truth. Though she might not have the best means to her end, she’s pure good intentions, and protecting the children is her top priority. That’s why, when she suspects something strange in Father Flynn, thanks to Sister James’s conjectures, she declares war against him.
What’s true, though? We don’t know. Yet, as far as we’re concerned, doubt isn’t strong enough to support a lie, one way or the other, and that’s why this becomes a monumental struggle: Sister Aloysius can’t sustain her suspicions if untrue, while Father Flynn can’t defend himself, if true. The hierarchy of the church, which to my eyes is highly questioned here (well done!), is also an impediment for truth: men rule, and a nun’s suspicion of sexual abuse can become meaningless if a priest such as Father Flynn is well regarded by, let’s say, the bishop; it might even mean the nun’s excommunication.
That’s where Sister Aloysius rises as a hero. She goes well beyond her vows and beliefs in order to stop whom she believes to be a hunter. In the process, we learn a little from her past and realize that she’s had quite a bit of grief and bad experiences to know about the world’s horror. She might be bitter as a result, but she’s sharp yet and loving inside, and in full use of her conscience. She’s a believer who cannot conceive the abuse of religious power. She herself is powerless, and for once decides to surpass the established barriers to have justice’s way. Needless to say, Streep excels in this character that keeps us in stitches as she reveals herself little by little in favor of truth, well fearing that she might be wrong, though never, at least while the battle lasts, letting that show.
Hoffman is outstanding as well, and that is also a tribute to the writer since the character is so meaty. We constantly believe in his innocence and refuse, the same as Sister James, to consider the opposite. We’re content with the innocent explanations that he offers and despise Sister Aloysius for pushing still. Yet, the very chance of any truth in her suspicions and the way Hoffman handles this extraordinary possibility for a priest who otherwise seemed to be in peace is mesmerizing. Great work there, as expected from Hoffman, one of today’s best.
The final piece of this masterful ensemble is Viola Davis, unforgettable as the mother of the child that Father Flynn is suspected of molesting. I must say that her only scene left me unsatisfied, as her motivations weren’t altogether clear and her reactions were too cryptic. Her performance, as good as any, is not to be faulted—I just found this to be a weak link of Shanley’s script, though not in respect of dialogue or character nuance.
This film is sure to leave the viewer wondering about truth, trust, and their own moral issues and ethics. It’s sure to leave an aftertaste, good or bad, but long-lasting. Doubt it not: this is a great film.
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