Trick, No Treat


Ambiguity in drama and literature has had good press throughout the last century, and rightly so. If a novel, play, or movie is to reflect the depth and multifariousness of life, it’s bound to introduce uncertainties into plot and characterizations. But there is ambiguity and then there is ambiguity. There is the sort that points toward the underlying mysteries of existence, and there is the kind that results from the writer withholding basic information. The first is what we find in the fiction of Dostoyevsky and Kafka, Beckett’s plays, Bergman’s movies; the second belongs to detective fiction or such trick-ending stories as “The Lady or the Tiger,” which are designed “to make you think,” as eighth-grade teachers tell their classes when assigning them as homework.

John Patrick Shanley surely intended Doubt, both his play and the film he’s made of it, to achieve the depth belonging to the former group. But it winds up in the latter, except that its conclusion denies you the satisfaction of the detective’s solution. Set in New York City in 1964, the story presents us with these antagonists: Sr. Aloysius Beauvier, a parochial school principal who casts a jaundiced eye on humanity and keeps her squirmy kids in line with well-aimed dope slaps, sarcasm, and extra homework. Positioned against her is the new parish priest, Fr. Brendan Flynn, who preaches the gospel of love and is obviously receptive to the aims of...

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About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.