01/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Doubt : Dazzling Provocation

We live in a world where there are few absolutes. Fundamentalism is a failed philosophy because the world is too complicated for a fundamentalist viewpoint to work.

It would be heresy to utter thoughts like that aloud in various parts of the world, including certain parts of the United States. But life comes in too many shades of gray to look at the world as divided between absolute black and white.

Such is the message of John Patrick Shanley's gripping Doubt based on his Tony and Pulitzer-winning play. A heavyweight cast performs Shanley's compelling arguments about the nature of faith and certainty in a way that will spark discussions among viewers in the same way it did on Broadway. And it gives those arguments such human form that it never feels like a sermon, even when it's meant to.

Shanley sets his story in and around a Bronx parochial school. The parish priest is Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who wants to drag the church into the 20th century -- or at least as far as 1964, when the story is set. But the school principal is the steely Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), who wouldn't have been out of place working for Torquemada in the Inquisition.

Sister Aloysius decries all efforts at modernization in the church, or the world in general. She disapproves of ballpoint pens as the assassin of penmanship and finds the song "Frosty the Snowman" heretical because it promotes a belief in magic. She bristles at the notion that, as a nun, she is subservient to Father Flynn, who rubs her the wrong way with a sermon that opens the film, in which he says, "Doubt can be a bond as sustaining as certainty." There's no room for doubt in the good sister's world.

Shanley offers clues about the sources of the friction between the two of them, even in something as simple as glimpses of the dinner table. At the convent, Sister Aloysius presides over a silent meal of quietly dining nuns; her baleful gaze is enough to cause a young nun to rethink her decision to spit out a piece of gristle. At the rectory, by contrast, the priests joke, smoke and drink beer.

The nun and the priest come into direct collision over a new student, Donald Muller, the school's first black pupil. Young Sister James (Amy Adams) reports her concerns to Sister Aloysius after Donald is called out of class to a meeting alone in the rectory with Father Flynn. When Donald returned to class, she tells Sister Aloysius, he seemed odd and smelled of alcohol.

That's all Sister Aloysius needs. She calls in Father Flynn and hints that she believes he may have done something inappropriate. Father Flynn immediately bristles at her implication, warning her to drop the subject. When she won't, he finally explains that the janitor caught the student -- who is an altar boy -- drinking sacramental wine. Father Flynn and the student had settled it in private; the nun's intervention means the priest will have to remove the boy from altar service, which will embarrass the student at school and at home.

But Sister Aloysius won't leave it alone. Perhaps it's Father Flynn's breezy ease with contemporary society or his casual way with the students, but she believes there's something off about him. Is he molesting the boy? Or is she seeing an unhealthy relationship simply because she dislikes his approach to their shared religion?

As a film director, Shanley is miles ahead of his last movie, the unwatchable Joe Versus the Volcano. But then Doubt is an altogether serious piece of work -- one dealing with the big questions without pretending to have any big answers. His cinematic approach is straightforward, even conservative, except for a few shots with the camera tilted at an acute angle.

Shanley also has a cast of pros at the top of their form to work with. Hoffman exudes inner conflict, struggling in verbal battle with Sister Aloysius, while offering hints of a variety of fears, most having to do with the terror of discovery.

But has he actually been inappropriate with Donald Muller? Does he fear that his faith isn't strong enough to wrestle the kind of compassion from the church he feels it needs to have? Is he afraid of being tarred by Sister Aloysius' brush, rightly or wrongly? Or is it that he sees that his good intentions will never be enough to withstand the hidebound approach of the nun and her kind? The blend of anguish, anger, love and uncertainty in his performance are almost too rich to bear.

Streep goes toe to toe with him as a woman of unyielding belief, but also one who knows how to bluff because a nun will never hold as strong a hand as a priest in the church's eyes. "I have my certainty," she growls when asked for her proof of Father Flynn's sins.

Streep makes this nun a warrior in a longstanding battle. Yet Streep also finds her humanity, the little chinks in her armor of discipline and ritual that hint of the human being hiding behind her habit. Like Hoffman, she captures complexity in a glance, once again reaffirming her stature as our finest actress.

Amy Adams holds her own in this company as the sweet-natured Sister James: in fear of Sister Aloysius, in awe of Father Flynn. Once she lights the fuse on Sister Aloysius' righteous anger and suspicion, Adams shows us the young nun's whipsaw alternation between indignity and remorse -- and her uncertainty about who to believe.

Strong writing, forceful storytelling and performances that are among the best of the year -- Doubt pulls you in and refuses to surrender your attention from the first shot to the last.