01/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Beyond the Shadow of a Doubt

This week, I sat in a Chicago screening room with white knuckles and sweaty palms, a knot in my stomach, heart racing and an urge to jump out of my seat.

You would have thought I was watching the latest installment of the Scream series or an apocalyptic opus about invading aliens or humanity-annihilating superbugs, rather than a period piece about clergy sex abuse.

Doubt, the masterful screen adaptation of John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play of the same name, was as suspenseful, difficult and troubling a film as any I've ever seen. And it is, to my mind, one of the most spiritually important films to come down the pike in years.

I had the chance to see Doubt on Broadway with its cast of Cherry Jones as Sister Aloysius and Brian F. O'Byrne as Father Flynn, as well as the national touring company's production in Chicago. I loved it -- one of my favorites for its economy of language, impact and import. (The play is 90 minutes long with just four characters -- Sister Aloysius, Father Flynn, Sister James and Mrs. Miller, the mother of the school's only black student, appearing on a rather spartan stage.)

The big-screen incarnation of Doubt, which opens in theaters today, was written and directed by Shanley (who won an Oscar for Moonstruck). It may be even more powerful than the play, particularly given the eerie similarities it bears to a very real drama that has unfolded in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Set in 1964 in the Bronx, N.Y. neighborhood where Shanley was reared, Doubt tells the story of gregarious Father Flynn (played with virtuosity by Philip Seymour Hoffman), pastor of St. Nicholas church, and the fiercely stern principal of St. Nicholas school, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). They distrust and dislike each other, and those misgivings lead to serious questions about Flynn's relationship with eighth-grader Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II).

Sister Aloysius believes Flynn is molesting the boy, an accusation he vehemently denies. Stuck in the middle is Sister James (Amy Adams), a naive, novice nun and Donald's teacher. She is perplexed by the changing world around her and lives in fear of Aloysius, her mother superior. She suspects something is amiss with Donald and the priest, but doesn't want to believe the worst.

Doubt doesn't give any easy answers. Filmgoers will leave with more doubts, I suspect, than when they arrived. We don't know for sure who's right and who's wrong. That is part of its immense power.

Shanley revealed recently that he knew a priest growing up that he suspected -- and who was later accused -- of being a predator. That priest from his past influenced the character of Flynn, but the filmmaker warns us not to jump to any conclusions.

"It's not really the character behind Father Flynn," Shanley told me by phone from New York. "It's just one of the elements that inform, that made me want to write it, you know what I mean? It's not based on that guy. First of all, this particular character [Flynn], what his backstory is is never known, and I don't mean for it to be known. When I wrote it, I did not mean for it to be some buried treasure, that that was sort of the truth of what I'm actually trying to communicate in this film.

"It's really a story about making assumptions about people and gradually noticing your own assumptions and that they're not sufficient to carry you through the story," he said. "You have to start to rethink and then rethink again what you think of this person, which is sort of my experience in life."

Shanley also is well-aware of the parallels between Doubt and the case of Daniel McCormack, a priest who pleaded guilty last year to sexually abusing five boys at St. Agatha parish in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood. In the film, Hoffman's character even looks a bit like McCormack, whose victims were African-American. Scenes where Hoffman is coaching the basketball team -- a role McCormack played at St. Agatha -- gave me chills.

"Actually, I was surprised that more was not made of that story in connection with the play," Shanley said. His 2005 play predates McCormack's arrest in January 2006. "As soon as I saw the story, I thought: 'Holy mackerel, say it out loud and there it is.' "

The film is dedicated to Sister Margaret McEntee, a Sister of Charity nun who was Shanley's first-grade teacher and who served as a technical adviser for the movie. She is the real-life Sister James.

"She looked a lot like Amy Adams. She even had the same color red hair," Shanley said. "To me, she is the most obviously sympathetic person ... she's the identification of last resort. Some people strongly identify with Sister Aloysius. And some people identify with Father Flynn. And the rest identify with Sister James."

Doubt is a forceful spiritual commentary, but not one intended to be a commentary on clergy sex abuse.

"I wasn't interested particularly in writing about the church scandals, and I wasn't really interested in writing a whodunit. I'm more interested in people becoming more accepting and comfortable with living with doubt because I think that's one of the big problems we've had in this country in the last decade," Shanley said. "There's been this evaporation of doubt as a hallmark of wisdom. ... Everyone is very entrenched. And true discourse is nowhere to be found. And we're desperate for it."

Without a doubt.

Cathleen Falsani is religion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of the new book, Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace. A spiritual profile of playwright John Patrick Shanley is included in her 2006 book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People.