The title of Doubt (2008, dir. and writer John Patrick Shanley) expresses the themes and concerns of the film in every possible way. The film is about political and cultural doubt, personal doubt about one’s motives and perceptions, theological doubt, ethical and moral doubt. In other words, the film is about those modes of thought that make us self-aware and thinking creatures, that give us a sentient self, that burden us with uncertainty. Doubt is a film that, despite its concern with faith and the Catholic Church, doesn’t take anything for granted, a film in which there are no absolutes and everything is up for interrogation, examination.
Doubt takes place in 1964, when the Civil Rights Movement was making major political and cultural inroads in America, the year following the assassination of John Kennedy, two years following the pronouncements of Vatican II. The placement of the film in 1964 thereby enables it to explore issues that remain pertinent today. Another issue that was not much spoken of, if at all, in 1964, was the concern that some priests might be molesting young members of their churches. The film examines this possibility; helps explain why the problem went for so long unacknowledged or addressed; yet at the same time does not make this issue its main subject. Instead, its mains subject is exactly what its title conveys: doubt.
I can think of few films with better acting. Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn provide some of the best acting I’ve seen in film in quite a while. Streep in particular so fully inhabits her role as the senior sister of the school, a stern disciplinarian both to students and to others, totally dedicated to her calling as a teacher and nun, devout in her faith, fully disapproving of the reforms of Vatican II beginning to make themselves felt. The film is worth seeing solely for the experience of watching the expressions on Streep’s face—she can say more with a grimace, a raised eyebrow, a clenched lip, than many actresses can manage in a career. In her public appearances on talk shows and other venues, Streep has always struck me as highly intelligent and without any kind of distinct personality. In her acting roles, she becomes the parts she plays.
Amy Adams is fresh and convincing in her role as the young nun and teacher Sister James.
The plot focuses on Sister Aloysius’s growing suspicion that Father Flynn is having an “inappropriate” relationship with the only black student at the school. Sister Aloysius does not like Father Flynn’s informal way with the parishioners and the students at the school. He’s too relaxed and familiar for her tastes. He’s willing to have a secular song as part of the Christmas pageant, and this bothers her as well. Flynn is apparently responsible for the admission to the school of its first black student, Donald Miller, and although the sister does not openly disagree with the student’s presence she feels he needs special attention because of how other students may treat him.
The film suggests, and Sister James and Father Flynn suggest, that Sister Aloysius’s suspicions of the priest are motivated by her dislike of his reformed ways. The film neither confirms nor denies this possibility, just as it neither confirms nor denies her accusations against the priest. In the end, those accusations seem confirmed circumstantially—Sister Aloysius is told something about Father Flynn by a teacher at another school, and when she threatens to go public with what she believes she knows, he decides to resign. Is this because he is guilty of her charges, or because he wants to avoid embarrassment? The film never gives an answer. It provides only possible explanations.
Gradually, Sister Aloysius collects evidence. Flynn held a special meeting with the boy, after which the boy appeared upset and may have had wine on his breath. Sister Aloysius sees Father Flynn put an undershirt in the boy’s locker. We see Flynn and the boy together only twice. The first time the boy is confessing his desire to enter the priesthood. The second time the priest is comforting the boy who has been jostled in the school hallway by another student. There is nothing untoward in these two scenes. Everything Sister Aloysius knows about the boy and about Flynn is circumstantial, assumed, inferred, implied. Nothing is certain. As members of the audience we are in the same position as the characters in the film. Only Sister Aloysius seems sure that she knows what is happening, and she vows to bring Father Flynn down.
The film makes a point of portraying the male-centered structure of the school and the church. Father Flynn is the final authority. The nuns live and eat together in relatively Spartan surroundings, while Father Flynn and other priests dine and joke together in a social, jovial way. If Sister Aloysius follows protocol, she will have to forward her concerns about the school and Father Flynn through Flynn himself. Father Flynn himself must answer to other priests, cardinals, bishops. It’s only when Sister Aloysius contacts a nun in another school and asks about Father Flynn’s past that she is able to make headway. Even when Father Flynn resigns his position in the church, he is reassigned by his superiors to another church and school, a better one, in fact.
The only person who does not have doubt about what she believes she knows is Sister Aloysius. In the end, even she is unsure.