When I first read the play Doubt in college, it shook me to my core. The film –based off the Pulitzer Prize-winning play — is beautifully adapted for the screen by acclaimed playwright/director John Patrick Shanley. A Bronx Catholic Church serves as the setting for this story. Set in 1964, the narrative revolves around Priest Father Flynn (Philip Seymour-Hoffman) and Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). Streep’s character serves as principal of the church’s attached school, St Nicholas. At this time, it’s been a year since the first Catholic president was assassinated. The year also marked the very beginning of the Catholic Revolution — a promise of reform by the Vatican to bring the church into the modern world. However, this drama focuses on a different set of politics.
Shanley is a Bronx native. Growing up in a blue-collar Irish American family, he excellently depicts the time and period in the opening shots without any hints of nostalgia. The scene opens up to the friendly and progressive Father Flynn preaching about doubt. This was a feeling many within the community were afflicted with during this time. As the homily continues, the camera pans to Sister Aloysius. She begins to stalk the church aisle in order to discipline distracted children. Her glaring eyes and harsh tone of voice could cut through you like a knife. Sister Aloysius, who represents the older ways of the church, resents the change occurring around her. She hates ballpoint pens because she believes penmanship is dying. When asked if a secular Christmas song could be added to that year’s program, she found the idea appalling. Aloysius believes her duty in life is simply to protect the children from the cruel corrupt world. Her hope is to lead them on the correct path.
Aloysius uses fear as main tactic to accomplish this goal. Father Flynn is portrayed as a kind and considerate man. He instantly grows very popular among the kids at the school, as well as within his congregation. His belief is that priests should be a loving part of the congregational family as opposed to an intimidating symbol of discipline and morality.
As the film continues, another nun named Sister James (Amy Adams) comes into the picture having noticed Father Flynn spending too much time and attention towards one of her students, 14-year-old Donald Miller. Donald is the first African American student at the school. Due to this, he’s harshly bullied and ridiculed by his classmates. Sister James is the antithesis of Sister Aloysius — instead opting to utilize hopefulness and endearing love for her job and students. She doesn’t want to cause trouble in general. However, Donald returned to her class after meeting with Father Flynn with altar wine on his breath. She then knew she must spill the beans on what she witnessed. Sister Aloysius convinces Sister James (and mostly herself) that Father Flynn has been molesting Donald. His fate at the end of this crafted conclusion has been sealed. Father Flynn needs to be destroyed in her eyes. She puts together the small gestures of help and affection Flynn makes towards the boy to form the basis of her charge against him. She has no proof, but her innate certainty says otherwise. During the time period, sex abuse scandals were rarely heard or broadcast.
With films and TV shows such as Spotlight and The Keepers, the scandal of sex abuse within Catholic churches is not uncommon, nor overly shocking. When Streep’s character meets with the boy’s mother (Viola Davis) to inform of her of what is happening with Donald, she is met with opposition — and a realization that Mrs. Miller will accept anything Father Flynn has done to her son as long as he is able to stay at St. Nicholas. Davis is only on screen for 11 minutes, but it is the best scene in the entire film. Her brilliant performance is the emotional heart and soul of this story. She goes up against the greatest film actress of this generation, and becomes her equal. The heartbreaking scene between the two giants is filled with vulnerability and tremendous power. As the scene progresses and we find out the truth behind Donald’s struggles, we can’t help but empathize and mourn alongside her.
This movie is a provocative and forceful piece of theatrical work with some of the finest actors of all-time taking the reins. Streep and Hoffman are at the center of the film with unforgettable and transformative performances. They have the ability to create incredibly authentic characters without adopting clique mannerisms or caricatures. I know many people who are completely certain about the ambiguous conclusion of this play. I personally, for as many times as I’ve watched it on stage or seen the film, have never been able to come to any sort of understanding or peace.
“Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty,” Father Flynn states…..and I couldn’t agree more.
Image Source: The New York Times