Friday, December 26, 2008

New film 'Doubt' tells much about our 'rape culture,' none of it good for innocent men

John Patrick Shanley's award winning play "Doubt" has been transferred to the big screen with Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius, the constipated, fire-breathing principal of a Catholic grade school in 1964 who accuses Father Flynn, a charismatic parish priest well played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, of child molestation despite the fact that there is not a shred of evidence to support her accusation.

I say "not a shred" with apologies to a host of major film critics who suggest, without citing any evidence -- because there is none -- that Father Flynn's guilt or innocence is "unresolved."

Whatever its merits as a play that clearly was intended to be "provocative," at least in the screen adaptation there simply is no doubt in "Doubt." Instead we are presented with a nutty, self-righteous woman (Streep) who doesn't merely jump to conclusions, she leaps, bounds and soars to them. She admits she has no evidence for besmirching a good man's reputation, just her own "certainty." Her otherwise hateful and overblown reactions to life's innocuous moments should, of course, raise a red flag with respect to any such accusation: she whacks the backs of boys' heads (but not girls') for the slightest infraction, and she thinks that "Frosty the Snowman" is heresy because a magic hat brings a snowman to life. While Father Flynn wants to figuratively open the windows of the church and let in the winds of change, Sister Aloysius wants to keep them shut, hence the running metaphor of Streep slamming closed the window in her office to keep the wind out. Discontented that "men run everything," Sister Aloysius insists that Father Flynn must be guilty of molestation despite his fervent and credible denials because he has taken a kindly interest in the only black boy in the school, a pathetic, friendless lad whose father beats him.

With all due respect to the enlightened film critics -- who, as a class, seem to think that elliptical prose makes them appear to be thoughtful -- Father Flynn's guilt or innocence is not "unresolved." There was no evidence for the accusation to begin with, so exactly how could it be "unresolved" at the end? Unless, of course, the mere accusation of sexual misconduct against a man, no matter how groundless, is sufficient to leave his innocence "unresolved."

I thought so.

Of course, the very nature of such an accusation does not allow an innocent man the ability to rule out with 100 percent certainty that "something" possibly, might have, could have happened -- because the absence of physical evidence is often not determinative. And for too many seemingly educated persons, the absence of probative evidence tending to show guilt is, for some reason, never enough to "resolve" the question in the face of an unfounded accusation. In the end, the overriding question the film poses probably is not the one the author intended: since when did an accusation of sexual assault, admittedly proffered without evidence, become sufficient to taint a man as a potential rapist?

Sadly, in our hysterical rape culture, too many real-life men who are wrongly accused find themselves in exactly the same situation as Father Flynn, their innocence forever "unresolved" in the court of last resort, the court of public opinion.