The entire story plays in a Catholic grade school in 1964. Kennedy was assassinated a year before. Meryl Streep plays a nun and the school’s principal. Philip Seymour Hoffman the new parish priest.
It’s fall in New York. There are crumbling brick walls, grey skies and lots of leaves blowing in the hard, cold wind. The school’s buildings have tall ceilings, wainscotings, windows that leak and light bulbs that wink out spontaneously. Organ music and choir singing is the soundtrack.
There is one black boy in the school in 8th grade. He is sensitive, different, and therefore the target of abuse by some of the bullies in the school. The priest has elevated him to alter boy, serves as a male role model and protector for him.
The priest is a good man, as far as we can see. He loves his work, his position, and he enjoys his life. He cares for the children, the teachers, all nuns, and his parish. He is a progressive.
The principal is a withered spinster-like woman who is on an endless power trip. She has the entire school, every child, every teacher under her thumb. She rules. Ballpoint pens are not allowed. Cough drops in a teacher’s desk are considered candy and thrown out. Kids dozing off in church are slapped on the back of the head. She makes her own rules and expects everyone to abide by them.
She does not like the priest. He enjoys wine, sugar in his tea, and sports. Without the slightest trace of evidence she accuses the priest of improprieties with the alter boy. The struggle escalates.
We watch the drama unfold. Can a priest, accused of sexual abuse, win such a battle? Can one woman on a crusade end another man’s career?
There is Catholic guilt, righteousness, virtue, power and yes, doubt, that drives the characters. It reminds me all so much of my childhood, when I was the age of the alter boy, and I remember the feelings well. It took years of struggle to rid myself of the burdens of such an upbringing.
This movie tells a good story, and at the end I asked myself what I thought had actually happened, and I must admit I really do not know. Not everything actually is what it seems to be, and that’s doubly, triply true in a religious environment.