Director: John Patrick Shanley
Writer: John Patrick Shanley (Five Corners, Moonstruck)
Stars: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis
The Story: In 1960s New York, a stern nun accuses a liberal priest of improprieties with a student, leading to much uncertainty and recriminations.
How it Came to be Underrated: It’s hard to say that a movie is underrated when it got Oscar nominations for all four actors, plus writer and picture. But it didn’t win anything and it was quickly forgotten. I felt that it was the one of the two or three most powerful movies of that year, and it pains me to see it occasionally referred to now as a punchline. (Even if it’s a funny punchline)
Why It’s Great:
- Most of the time, when a playwright opts to direct his own play, it’s because he wants to “protect” the text from meddling hands. That couldn’t be further from the truth here. The play won every possible award, but Shanley reshapes it for the new medium in a dozen ways that make it even smarter. In this case, Shanley was the best possible director because only he would have felt the freedom to crack it open like this.
- In the movie, many story beats consist of little silent moments, or short little enigmatic scenes, or little objects invested with big meaning... Each character exists in their own separate world, and there is a lot of meaning created simply by cutting back and forth between those worlds… These are all things that film does better than the stage. The ultimate compliment I could pay this movie: if I were asked to turn it into a play, I would say that it couldn’t be done without oversimplifying it.
- I love how the story uses our retrospective prejudices to keep us off balance. Shanley knows that we’ll want to condemn these people for being undersensitive to the danger of pedophile priests, but that we’ll also recoil at their bigotry toward homosexuality in general. Then he plays the same trick with race, class and sexism in rapid succession. He reminds us over and over that the past is a foreign country. The only way to understand them is to learn the language. The more we hear them talk, the more our modern certainties come into question.
- There is so much empathy towards every character, even Sister Aloysius, who is hopelessly stranded on the wrong side of history (she thinks that ball point pens rot young minds: “Always the easy way out these days”). That empathy pays off in all the little funny moments. My favorite: We cut from the priests, eating thick steaks and joking around, to the nuns, choking down bad food under the stern eye of the mother superior. Adams gets a piece she can’t swallow, so she tries to surreptitiously remove it from her mouth. But Streep sees all, and shoots Adams such a withering glance that she puts the food back into her mouth. It’s funny, and it’s sad, and it helps us understand intimately how so much could go so wrong.
Underrated Compared To: The movie that actually won the Oscar that year, Slumdog Millionaire, could have been written by Sister Aloysius. It, too, clung to its certainty about who the heroes and villains are in this world.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: John Patrick Shanley’s only previous directorial effort could not have been more different, except that it was also underrated: Joe Versus the Volcano. I should admit here that I haven’t seen that one in 20 years, but I sure liked it at the time.
How Available Is It?: It’s on dvd and you can watch it instantly.
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