“Doubt,” says Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) during one of his sermons, “can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.” For all intents and purposes, he was speaking directly to the audience watching “Doubt,” a film adaptation of John Patrick Shanley’s play. Here’s a film that doesn’t impose a belief so much as it encourages thought. It’s an absorbing character study with the structure of a mystery and the subtext of a morality play, which is to say that the blending of genres makes for a fascinating story. So do the characters, each so thoroughly developed that they never once felt like shallow stereotypes. I felt as if I could listen to them talk for hours, which really must give you an idea how engrossing their dialogue is; Shanley reveals his characters more with the careful, deliberate usage of words than with actions. Some may find that boring. I found it masterful.
Taking place in 1964, “Doubt” tells the story of a nun who suspects a priest of abusing a teenage boy at a New York City Catholic school. The nun is Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the school’s principal. She’s a stern, unsympathetic, conservative woman with a keen eye for misconduct. Some would say it’s too keen; there’s a sense that she actively looks for something to discipline, be it a student not sitting up straight, the obvious pagan undertones to “Frosty the Snowman,” the undignified usage of ballpoint pens, or teachers with an innocent outlook on life. Such a teacher is Sister James (Amy Adams), the school’s eighth grade teacher; despite a relatively pleasant disposition, she’s also somewhat reserved, afraid to provoke Sister Aloysius by not living up to her standards. Consider this moment when all the Sisters eat their dinners in silence–when Sister James takes a bit of food out of her mouth and puts it on the side of her plate, Sister Aloysius gives her a piercing stare, one that says, “Not in my school, you don’t.”
Early on, she tells Sister James to be watchful of Father Flynn, who teaches boys’ Basketball. It seems he’s been spending a lot of time with Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), an altar boy who happens to be the school’s only black student. Sister James tells Sister Aloysius about the day he went into the school’s rectory alone with Father Flynn; when he came back, his expression was troubling, and worse yet, there was alcohol on his breath. “So it’s happened,” says Sister Aloysius as if she knew it would happen all along. Thus begins an intense battle of wills, pitting a nun who has nothing but her certainty against a priest who maintains his innocence.
The genius of this movie is that it tackles religious and authority issues without getting preachy. We’re shown only what needs to be shown, and from that, we’re asked to make up our own minds. As in any good debate, both sides have their good points and their bad points. Take Father Flynn; he does seem to care about Donald Miller, a young man who has made no friends and wants the security and guidance of an adult male figure. At the same time, there’s a sense that maybe Father Flynn is taking too much of an interest in him and not enough of an interest in other boys. There are many possible reasons for this. It could be as simple as the boy’s skin color, which evokes Zora Neale Hurston’s 1943 article on what she called the “Pet Negro” System–because Donald is the only black student, Father Flynn is compelled to give him just a little more attention than his white classmates. Or maybe he pities Donald for being abused by his father, which, for some, would explain the odd expression noticed by Sister James.
Now, take Sister Aloysius. One could argue that she’s the product of a very different set of values, having been conditioned to believe that teachers are enforcers, not nurturers, and that modern-day conveniences–a handheld transistor radio, for example–hinder a child’s ethical development. And after years of seeing priests come and go, it’s fair to say that she knows a thing or two about people. That being said, accusing a priest of abuse without proof is serious, perhaps even unwarranted. Sister James believes this to be true. She also has trouble accepting the idea she should look at people with suspicion. “It feels as if I’m less close to God,” she pleads. “When you take a step to address wrongdoing,” Sister Aloysius replies matter-of-factly, “you are taking a step away from God, but in His service.” One wonders: Did Torquemada tell himself the same thing?
The film’s most pivotal scene features a conversation between Sister Aloysius and Donald’s mother (Viola Davis), who fears her son’s expulsion so strongly that she seems willing to let anything happen to him. “It’s just until June,” she keeps saying, knowing that graduating from this school will mean access to a better high school. Sister Aloysius is at a loss to understand Mrs. Miller’s line of thinking, although I suspect it has less to do with Donald’s welfare and more to do with punishing Father Flynn. The emotions running through this scene are raw and intense, a perfect counterpart to the escalating tensions within the walls of the school. They eventually channel themselves to the film’s inevitable climax and make it powerful, which is amazing given the fact that, for some, certainty can’t be guaranteed. I left the theater feeling no surer than I did entering, which is a testament to the brilliance of Shanley’s writing and direction. “Doubt” is an absolute masterpiece, not merely as a story, but as a thought-provoking examination of human behavior.
– Chris Pandolfi (www.GoneWithTheTwins.com)