Now this is an interesting movie.
In the Bronx of the early 1960s, a young and charismatic priest faces off against the older and rigid principal of the parish school. He’s progressive, well-liked, energetic and deeply caring. He’s also suspected of having started a thoroughly inappropriate relationship with the school’s first black student (a boy of 12). Philip Seymour Hoffman, by the way, is just wonderful in this role. It’s not the kind of knock-you-off-your-feet bravura performance of, say, “There Will Be Blood,” but it’s beautifully subtle and engaging.
Meryl Street is the hidebound and cold — or is she? — principal who is prepared to do whatever it takes to bring Father Flynn down. Even, as she puts it, “stepping away from God” in order to do so. But is she right? Is she sure?
The interesting part of this movie is how it drags you in and forces you to make your own judgments, and face your own doubts, as to what is really happening and how bad it is. Of course the pedophilia is unacceptable. But so are the alternatives for the young boy. Without the protection of this priest, he may be doomed. Even is mother is willing to turn away from her suspicions because, if he can just last through the school year and graduate, he’s got a shot at a good life. Otherwise, he’s got a shot at getting murdered. On the other hand, Sister Aloysius is faced with the present and real evil right in front of her, and isn’t willing to look beyond to the possible evil consequences of removing the priest.
How much wrongdoing is each character willing to accept in order to get something right along with it? Of course you want to believe that it’s all black-and-white. But tradeoffs are going to be necessary, and there are no winners in this drama. Four stars, and you’ll be talking about it for hours afterwards.