| John Patrick Shanley (“Moonstruck”) directs and adapts for the screen his Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play. The dramatic story is set in 1964 at a Catholic school in the Bronx.
Sister James (Amy Adams from “Enchanted’) teaches history and math to her 8th grade class. She also directs the children’s choir. She is naïve, innocent and very insecure. She also has a vivid imagination.
She notices that Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is paying too much attention to altar boy Donald Miller, the school’s first black student. She observes this compassionate priest putting Donald’s undershirt in a locker to spare the child embarrassment.
She reports this to school Principal Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep). This nun who distrusts all men is an advocate of instilling fear in the pupils through iron-gloved discipline. Her motto could be “spare the rod, spoil the child.” This sets up a heated confrontation between the nun and the priest. It is up to the audience to decide whether or not inappropriate sexual molestation occurred.
The title comes from a sermon given by the priest involving a crisis of faith where despair and hopelessness fill the void of uncertainty surrounding the existence of a supreme being. This downbeat, bleak story doesn’t translate well from the stage to the screen.
The tone is low key with very little suspense. The surroundings are dreary and bland. Everything about this production feels old and dated. It is very introspective with plenty of time to think things through and decide where you stand on the central controversy. The long pauses in the dialogue are off putting and slow things down to almost a standstill.
Besides the traditional and progressive dichotomy, the movie also contrasts the differences between men and women in the Catholic religion. The subservient nuns eat vegetarian meals in dead silence where you can almost hear a pin drop.
The boisterous priests prefer a noisy environment eating red meat. They seem to enjoy their lively camaraderie while drinking, smoking and laughing. Streep imitates the Wicked Witch of the West and is only missing the green skin color. Her New York accent comes and goes.
Viola Davis makes a cameo appearance as the mother of the black student. She is a poor cleaning lady who believes her 12-year-od boy is gay. She is thankful for the attention given to her son by the priest and is willing to turn a blind eye to the unfounded rumors and suspicions.
Pedophilia is alluded to, but never said out loud. She thinks Donald would have been bullied or killed at public school. Hoffman’s charismatic performance overshadows the rest of the cast. He is particularly strong giving sermons from the pulpit and defending his position of showing compassion to the students. It is hard not to side with his version of the facts. You have to be in a contemplative frame of mind to endure the deliberately slow pacing of much ado about nothing.
Despite my negative criticism, the movie has been nominated in five categories by both the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild. The National Board of Review bestowed an award for Best Ensemble Cast and named Davis for Best Female Breakthrough Performance.
Keith Cohen, "The Movie Guy"