starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Joseph Foster
screenplay by John Patrick Shanley
directed by John Patrick Shanley
Every step in pursuit of the devil is a step further away from God.
Sister Aloysius is Principal of a Roman Catholic school in 1964. She suspects that the school priest, Father Flynn, is sexually abusing one of the choir boys and sets her always-determined mind to booting him out of the school. The problem is that as a nun, the priest is her superior. But as the school principal she is simultaneously superior to the priest. It’s a power dichotomy. What to do? Who shall prevail? The story is not a dramatic telling of child sexual abuse by a priest - a story known too well from current events of recent years, and which would probably sell really well to the salacious appetites of the public. It is a dramatic tale of a power struggle between two authorities, with moral implications, set at the time that the Second Vatican Council was in full swing under Pope John XXIII. Both Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman are brilliant.
Maybe screenwriter/director John Patrick Shanley drew on his own memories or experiences of Catholic school. Sister Aloysius is presented as a kind of archetypical evil nun, like The Penguin from The Blues Brothers (1980, directed by John Landis, Kathleen Freeman became a movie cult icon for her performance as Sister Mary Stigmata). I have known only a couple of nuns in my life and only one of them was a school teacher, and she was not a fierce dragon. But I have heard stories direct from Catholic friends of being schooled by nuns that match the Iron Nun image.
Sister Aloysius has no proof of impropriety by Father Flynn, only her conviction. She makes no pretense about her dislike of the Father. Indeed, they resort to fierce shouting matches in her office. In the end, the Sister fakes the Father out with a blackmail bid that works, and he departs (for a promotion to another Catholic school). A nun resorting to blackmail? Well, the religious must be in the world while striving not to be of the world too much, and as we are told more than once in the film, every step in pursuit of the devil is a step further away from God - an uncomfortable thought. In the end Sister Aloysius has an attack of conscience. She felt sure than Father Flynn was abusing the boy and had to go, but she had no proof, only her certainty. Did she do the right thing? She’s left with only her doubt.
Personally, in the matter of principal vs. priest I think it is no contest. In school matters the principal prevails. Period. Separation of Church and State, you know? But then, being a Protestant might be what makes it easy for me.
My all-time favorite nun movie is The Trouble with Angels and its sequel, Where Angels Go Trouble Follows (1968, directed by James Neilson) in which Stella Stevens plays rebellious Sister George at the St. Francis Academyfor Girls. Teenage girls get into all kinds of adventures as their exhausted teachers try to keep a grip on them. I like it because of the teenage girls.
There are many other Nun movies out there: Lilies of the Field (1963); The Sound of Music (1965); The Singing Nun (1966); The Flying Nun (1967, U.S. TV show); Change of Habit (1969); Two Mules for Sister Sarah(1970); Nuns on the Run (1990); Sister Act (1992, the American adaptation of Nuns on the Run); The Nun (2006), etc. But my list of favorites is fairly short.
Other Nun movies that I like are:
In this House of Breade, a 1975 British Made for TV movie based on the novel by Rumer Godden, directed by George Shaefer and starring Diana Rigg as Dame Phillipa. I like this one because the story of Dame Phillipa as a successful businesswoman who turns her back on the world to enter a contemplative order really caught my fancy as I aged. It made me entertain the idea of entering a religious order. It contributed to my decision to attend a seminary for graduate school.
Agnes of God (1985, directed by Norman Jewison, starring Anne Bancroft, Jane Fonda and Meg Tilly as Sister Agnes), which was filmed partly in Guelph and nearby Rockwood.
Black Narcissus (1947, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, starring Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodaugh).
And, The Nun’s Story (1959, directed by Fred Zinnemann, starring Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke). This was the first movie appearance of Canadian actress Colleen Dewhurst that I saw. She plays the insane asylum patient who attacks Audrey Hepburn.