Year of Release: 2008 Directed by John Patrick Shanley. Starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Viola Davis.
“It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.” – G. K. Chesterton.
In the opening scene of Doubt, Fr. Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) preaches to his congregation at St. Nicholas parish on the power and importance of doubt and uncertainty. Doubt is shared by most people; it can bring about unity and help foster healing. Most importantly, as Chesterton pointed out, doubt can prevent us from committing a host of other sins by preventing arrogance and over certainty.
During Fr. Flynn’s homily, the principal of St. Nicholas grade school, Sister Aloysius, (Meryl Streep) only half pays attention. As disconcerting as she finds the topic, she is more interested in correcting the improper posture of students from her Catholic grade school.
Sister Aloysius’ no nonsense attitude has made her greatly feared among the students. The moment they sense her approaching, they straighten up, become quiet, and acknowledge her. She forbids barrettes in girls’ hair; she frowns upon sugar in tea; and she does not let the students use ballpoint pens. Even the camera reflects her austerity. When she first enters, the camera slowly focuses on Sister Aloysius from behind as she walks down the aisle at the church. An upward and faceless view emphasizes her authority and allows her to dwarf the scene.
Naturally, Sister Aloysius is very certain of herself and of her methods; she has no room for doubt. She knows that ballpoint pens cause bad penmanship by causing the students to push harder on the paper. When a student has a bloody nose, she knows that he faked it to get out of school, and she is correct. After a lifetime of watching deceit and mistakes, Sister Aloysius knows and expects every trick in the book. Her cynicism and certainty are a stark contrast to the young optimistic Sister James, (Amy Adams) who is inclined to believe and to expect the best.
Fr. Flynn is a very charismatic priest, who’s main goal is to make the Church more friendly and to encourage more people to come to the faith. He lets his fingernails grow slightly long; he banters with the boys on the basketball team; he smokes; he takes sugar in his tea, and he writes with a ballpoint pen. His personality and his behavior greatly irritate the old-fashioned Sister Aloysius. She has predetermined that Fr. Flynn is one of the worst of sinners who does not respect all tenets of the Catholic faith. (Why else would he have given a sermon on doubt?) Therefore, when Sister James mentions that Fr. Flynn has taken an interest in a student who is acting strangely, Sister Aloysius knows that he must be abusing the child.
The seriousness of the accusation serves to underscore the damage that arrogance and over certainty can do to a person or to a community. In light of the recent scandals involving some Catholic priests, a disproportional focus is often given to Fr. Flynn in discussing this film. Many people believe that film is about a “bad priest.” The film is actually about the bad sin of pride which can destroy even the most well-intentioned people.
Early in the film, Sister Aloysius says to Sister James that when we seek to expose injustice, we move away from God. As Sister Aloysius demonstrates, this is certainly true if we hunt injustice not out of truth, but out of a desire to satisfy our pride that we are right. By the end of the film, Sister Aloysius reveals that she did something which should horrify any orthodox Catholic, which she has always claimed to be.
To any impartial viewer, there are several obvious, innocent explanations for the Fr. Flynn’s behavior. His explanations hold water and could easily be checked by a second party. The film ultimately is not concerned with whether or not he is actually guilty. Doubt deals solely with arrogant certainty and its effects.
All three of the leads give phenomenal performances. Streep, Adams, and Hoffman are all convincing. None of them recite lines in front of the camera, but portray the emotions and thoughts of their characters. When Adams’ obedient young nun tries to act out of character, it is as surprising to the viewer as to the other characters in the scene. Streep’s attempt at humor as the cold Sister Aloysius falls flat for the viewer and for the other characters. Hoffman switches between friendly charisma and sorrowful regret very realistically. Viola Davis garnered a well deserved Oscar nomination as a character who has about five minutes of screen time.
The only major fault with the film is that the portrayal of the Catholic Mass has a distinctly Protestant feel, or at least a post Vatican II feel. For instance, the film opens with the choir singing “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name,” as the congregation enters the church for Mass. The version used is the OCP version, which was not used in Catholic churches until well after Vatican II, and the choir sings the hymn as written, which practically no Catholic has ever done. The film would have had a more convincing atmosphere, had the choir sang one of the GIA versions of the hymn, which would have been used in Catholic churches pre-Vatican II and sang the common auxiliary notes. Also, directly before the sermon, the choir sang one verse of “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow,” which is the Protestant doxology and is sung directly before the sermon in Congregational services. However, for the most part, the use of Catholic terminology was correct.
Despite minor inaccuracies, the film is very well crafted, showcasing incredible performances and skilled directing from writer John Patrick Shanley, who tells a compelling story about the damage that arrogance, intolerance, and over certainty can create.
Content Advisory: Discreet references to mature themes and an instance of vulgarity from a child. MPAA rating: PG-13
Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.
Personal Recommendation: B+