Monday, March 9, 2009

Where Fools Rush In

In an age of sound byte opinions and digitally rapid-fire news we are wildly quick to make our judgement calls on almost any subject from Britney Spears' mental health to the Gaza Strip invasion. The culture of blogging and a look-at-me glibness that seems to reward the loudest and quickest mouths on the block only adds to this feeling of disposable and trivial involvement delivered with maximum and immediate impact.

The idea we have the time, let alone a desire to think deeply about anything seems to be an anachronism we are dispensing with. Yet the popular success of the recent film Doubt throws this into question - and seems to me to have the same ethical significance now as Arthur Miller's The Crucible (which used the Salem witch-hunts of 1692 as its metaphor) did in the aftermath of McCarthyism in early 1950s America.

It certainly must have taken quite some convincing of the powers-that-be in Hollywood to go with a drama about a priest and a nun in conflict with each other over the direction of the Catholic faith and the well-being of a young school boy in their care during a gusty and grey autumn in the Bronx of 1964. No guns blaring, no significant special affects, no comic skits or lightweight patter, not even a clear and easily digestible conclusion to send people home feeling good.

And yet Doubt has gathered such critical momentum it played a significant role at this year's Academy Awards - with nominations for Best Actress for Meryl Streep and Best Supporting Actor for Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as well as seeing Viola Davis (as a worried mother) and Amy Adams (a young nun) competing for the Best Supporting Actress honour.

Hoffman's priest is a lover of life: enjoying a glass of red wine and a cigarette, a side of raw and bloody beef, an extravagant and almost provocative three sugars in his tea. Along with these earthly pleasures he has a philosophical association with the groundswell of the Vatican II movement under Pope Paul VI in the early '60s, which sought to make the Catholic Church a more user-friendly and humane institution.

Streep's nun is a stoic recalcitrant who thinks 'Frosty the Snowman' is a pagan anthem. She detests biros as a sign of declining penmanship and runs her high school with ferocious discipline. Outwardly she represents a gloomy authoritarian hangover from the 1950s, but there's a tartly humorous side to her take on the world that slowly becomes available to us. "Everyone's afraid of you," a young sister tells her. You can almost taste Meryl Streep's smile when she replies, "Of course."

What is at heart a personal and institutional power struggle masked in the ideological currents of Catholic theology and educational practice (and with it some proto-feminist intimations as well) becomes something darker and deeper as the nun suspects the priest of inappropriate relations with the young black boy at her school. And yet despite the almost clich├ęd motor of a paedophile plot it's not clear if the priest is guilty - and even more ambiguously if such a 'guilty' relationship is utterly shameful, or part of a much more complex scenario involving issues of sexuality, bullying, race, class and other hidden forms of abuse.

The film's title resonates throughout every moment, turning our beliefs into presumptions. It ultimately asks us to consider the part that doubt can, or should play in how one speaks and acts. As Hoffman asks from the pulpit when Doubt opens, "What do you do when you're not sure?"

John Patrick Shanley wrote, directed and adapted the film from his stage play of the same name. These antecedents are obvious and Hoffman and Street eat up the screen in some overtly stagey if nonetheless superb bursts of plot-shaking dialogue. Shanley has meanwhile been open about the real inspiration behind the substance of the film: post 9/11 New York and the USA of this era more generally, when anyone who doubted or questioned the direction the country was headed in risked being ostracized and isolated.

And yet if events since 9/11 have taught us anything it is to be suspicious of fundamentalism, extremism and absolutism in all its forms, as well as any cheers (or hisses) that come too easily from abroad or at home. There's an old saying that fools rush in where angels fear to tread. It would pay to have it inscribed as a motto on the level of our civic debate these days.

It's this sophisticated broadening of thought - and emotions - that makes Doubt so richly involving as an experience, whether you have an interest in Catholicism or indeed an aversion to anything religious at all. The real drama it contains is its focus on our morality and how we come to determine its active nature in ourselves. How dreadful to think that our convictions can grow in the shallowest of soils and be nothing more than weeds.

Of course there comes a point where endless nuances and vacillations can immobilize us. One of the ironies of Doubt as it develops is the way in which the best possible actions are in fact committed on the basis of what is known, if for somewhat mixed and uncertain results. We do our best. What Doubt asks of us is to think about the tension between what we claim to know and how shaded the world can be in practice, and find some greater faith in its complexities - rather than annihilate ambiguity in order to reward our certainties.

- Mark Mordue

* This article was first published online at ABC, 23rd February 2009, 09.30am.

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whereisdean said...
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