'The Reader' and 'Doubt' Tackle Generational Divides

Two new movies — Doubt and The Reader — deal with sex with minors. Doubt takes place during a time of change for the Roman Catholic church in the 1960s. The Reader is about two generations of Germans, those who lived through World War II and those who learned about it as history.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Three movies open this week, all angling for Oscars. "The Reader" is about Germany's Nazi past, "Gran Torino" is about a war veteran who hates immigrants, and "Doubt" is about a church scandal. So you might think these movies have nothing in common. But Bob Mondello says all three are about generational divides.

BOB MONDELLO: Two of these movies have plots revolving around sex between an adult and an adolescent. In "Doubt," about a nun who suspects a priest of molesting an altar boy, absolutely nothing sexual happens on screen. And even without sex, "Doubt" turns out to be more about sex than "The Reader," in which a 15-year-old German boy spends the summer of 1958 romping in bed with his 36-year-old girlfriend. Erotic antics are more or less beside the point in "The Reader," even when the reading is going on in a shared bath tub.

(Soundbite of movie "The Reader")

Mr. DAVID KROSS: (As young Michael Berg) Lady Chatterly felt his naked flesh against her.

Ms. KATE WINSLET: (As Hanna Schmitz) This is disgusting. Where did you get this?

Mr. KROSS: (As young Michael Berg) Borrowed it from someone at school.

Ms. WINSLET: (As Hanna Schmitz) Well, you should be ashamed. Go on.

MONDELLO: "The Reader" treats young Michael as a sex-crazed puppy eager for experience. It does not treat Hanna as particularly exploitive, though she clearly is exploitive, because what "The Reader" has on its mind isn't their physical relationship but the generational change they represent in Germany. Michael is part of what's known as the German second generation. He was born toward the end of World War II and grew up innocently, only learning of Nazi crimes against humanity as he matured. Hanna lived those crimes and that, far more than the criminal act of her taking an underage lover, is what makes their intimacy grotesque. "Doubt" is also about a generational difference, not so much between priest and altar boy, though that's certainly the topic of a lot of conversation, but between priest and nun. Young Father Flynn, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, represents the winds of doctrinal change that are blowing through the Catholic Church in the 1960s, winds that alarm Sister Aloysius, played by Meryl Streep. She resists change, whether it's those newfangled ballpoint pens that are messing up penmanship or the very idea of singing a non-religious song at a Christmas pageant.

(Soundbite of "Doubt")

Ms. MERYL STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) "Frosty The Snowman" espouses a pagan belief in magic. If the music were more somber, people would realize the images are disturbing and the song, radical. Should be banned from the airwaves.

Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) So, not "Frosty the Snowman."

Ms. MERYL STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) May I ask what you're writing down with that ballpoint pen?

Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Oh, nothing. It's an idea for a sermon.

Ms. MERYL STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) What is the idea?

Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Intolerance.

MONDELLO: The laid-back priest seems far more appealing than the close-minded nun until she wonders aloud, without offering any evidence, what's going on between him an altar boy. Nothing, he says, but it's hard to prove a negative, which leads, as the title has it, to doubt. What connects "Doubt" and "The Reader" is a shared notion that the old ways, whether old church or old Germany, were intolerant, even monstrous. But the espousers of the new are damaged, compromised and not necessarily better guides to morality. Our elders are disasters, these movies say, and so are we. Now what are we going to do about our children? One answer is suggested by Clint Eastwood in his new film, "Gran Torino." He's playing a guy who is sort of a geriatric Dirty Harry, a racist, bitter old coot who can't stand the Hmong immigrants who have taken over his neighborhood. Then he gets in the middle of a gang dispute and inadvertently helps them, at which point they start stacking flowers on his front porch.

(Soundbite of "Gran Torino")

Mr. CLINT EASTWOOD: (As Walt Kowalski) Why are you bringing me all this garbage anyway?

Unidentified Woman: Because you saved Thao.

Mr. CLINT EASTWOOD: (As Walt Kowalski) I didn't save anybody. I just - that's all.

Unidentified Woman: You're a hero to the neighborhood.

Mr. CLINT EASTWOOD: (As Walt Kowalski) I'm not a hero.

Unidentified Woman: Too bad, they think you are.

MONDELLO: What he really is is something these Hmong families feel they've lost. They have developed generational issues themselves in resettling here, distant kids, rootless families. Eastwood's character reluctantly becomes for his Hmong neighbors what our society once respected and what theirs still does - the wise, protective elder, capable of routing gangs and of knowing instinctively what's right. Now, if only it were that easy outside the cineplex. I'm Bob Mondello.

NORRIS: And you can find reviews of other movies out this week. That's at npr.org.

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In 'Doubt': Adapting A Parable Proves Problematic

Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius Beauvier i i

Definitely De Rigueur: Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) runs her parochial school with an old-school iron fist. Miramax Films hide caption

itoggle caption Miramax Films
Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius Beauvier

Definitely De Rigueur: Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) runs her parochial school with an old-school iron fist.

Miramax Films

Doubt

  • Director: John Patrick Shanley
  • Genre: Drama, Mystery
  • Running Time: 104 minutes

Rated PG-13 for thematic material.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Brendan Flynn i i

Shadow Player: The reformist Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) arouses suspicion for his interest in one particular student. Miramax Films hide caption

itoggle caption Miramax Films
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Brendan Flynn

Shadow Player: The reformist Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) arouses suspicion for his interest in one particular student.

Miramax Films
Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller i i

Shouts And Murmurs: Donald Miller's mother (Viola Davis) says more with less force. Miramax Films hide caption

itoggle caption Miramax Films
Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller

Shouts And Murmurs: Donald Miller's mother (Viola Davis) says more with less force.

Miramax Films

Somewhere in its journey from stage to screen, John Patrick Shanley's 2005 Pulitzer-winner Doubt, a Parable became simply Doubt, losing the qualifier that follows that titular comma, along with the claim to universality that went with it.

Not surprising, of course. Parables are more or less de rigueur on stage, where the idea is to approximate reality, not duplicate it. Film, being a more literal medium, tends to bring metaphors crashing to earth when it renders them physical and specific.

And that's more or less what happens to Shanley's moral guessing game once the story is removed from its onstage Everyschool and set down in a solid, stolid parochial academy in the Bronx in 1964.

Meryl Streep's Sister Aloysius, a strict disciplinarian who rushes to shut windows whenever she finds them open a crack — lest some metaphorical gust of fresh air intrude on her musty domain — terrifies not just the students, but also her fellow nuns.

And she's less than fond of the newly arrived Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who rather likes the breezes of change that are blustering outdoors. The two are perpetually at odds and not just over what turns out to be relentlessly symbolic weather.

They disagree on teaching — she the doctrinaire old knuckle-rapper, he the warm, inspiring type — and also on how best to shepherd their young charges past extracurricular difficulties.

When Father Flynn takes a new student — the school's only black child — under his protective wing, correctly surmising that he'll be subjected to hazing, Sister Aloysius worries about the extent of his interest in the lad, and with very little concrete evidence to go on, heads straight into pederasty-in-the-priesthood territory. Ugly confrontations ensue, with each battle leaving a few more doubts lingering in the air.

Doubt cast a long moral shadow on Broadway but seems blunter on screen, largely because Shanley's fussy directorial notions — a cat portentously brought in to catch a mouse skittering down school hallways, for instance — are less nuanced than the religious and moral arguments he's given his principal characters.

It doesn't help that he encourages stridency from Streep and bluster from Hoffman, which results in theatrical shouting matches where an anguished cinematic hush would almost certainly prove more effective.

The film's most wrenching performance, in fact, comes from Viola Davis, who plays the boy's worried mother as a woman who is in no position to raise her voice, even when articulating a startlingly unexpected parental position on what may have transpired between the priest and her son.

The others argue strenuously and occasionally even eloquently, to ever-diminishing effect; Davis speaks plainly and quietly, and leaves not a shadow of a doubt that the moral high ground is a treacherous spot to occupy in the real world.

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