Andy Bockelman: 'Doubt' is a provocative religious drama

With an unflinching skepticism and a powerful cast, "Doubt" tackles still-relevant topics in a nostalgic era.

Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) is the principal of a Bronx Catholic school in 1964. Steadfast and steeped in the tradition of the church, she is particularly displeased by the informal demeanor of the church's popular priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Father Flynn, who continually flouts his superiority in the church over her.

Her distrust of him only becomes greater when fellow nun Sister James (Amy Adams) divulges an unspeakable suspicion involving Flynn and the school's first African-American student (Joseph Foster II).

Although the priest denies any such incident, Sister Aloysius is determined to find out the truth.

Streep never disappoints, especially when playing tough, determined women. She approaches the role with simultaneous temerity and quiet reserve - fittingly so for a character that wholeheartedly believes in the fire and brimstone answers of Catholicism.

Likewise, Hoffman's performance as the questionable man of the cloth is so convincing in its ambiguity, it is downright unsettling. Adams is more candid but no less engrossing in her showing as the wide-eyed, rather simplistic young nun who finds herself in a crisis of faith due to the complicated, unpleasant scenario that soon unfolds around her.

In adapting his own play for the screen, writer/director John Patrick Shanley evokes a feeling of religion at its crossroads. The politics within the Catholic Church are examined as if through a magnifying glass, turning up more than the casual observer would like to see.

It's no coincidence that the story is set in post-JFK America, with an almost overwhelming mood of cynicism based on the uncertainty of the future, all neatly tied up within the conflict between Flynn and his female colleagues. What ultimately sets the tone, however, are the constant bird's-eye camera angles, leaving the audience with the unquestionable impression that God Himself is watching the action onscreen.

Although not as cathartic as its buildup may seem, there is no doubt that "Doubt" will keep viewers thinking theological thoughts for a long while.

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