Director: John Patrick Shanley
Production Company: Miramax
Cast: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis
Rating: PG-13 for thematic material
By Gregg Tubbs
UMC.org—“What do you do when you're not sure?" Spoken in a sermon, this question launches Doubt, an absorbing story about societal change, intolerance, suspicion and dogmatic certainty. As the end-of-year Oscar race heats up, Doubt delivers a character-driven drama, anchored by four bracing Oscar-worthy performances. Set in a Catholic parish during a time of social and religious unrest, this battle of wills and ideas pits the religious old-guard against a vibrant new wave. What results is a deliciously ambiguous story about the clash between uncertainty and moral conviction.
Based on his 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning play called “Doubt, a Parable,” the film adaptation was also written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, who is best remembered for writing the screenplay for Moonstruck, which netted Cher a Best Actress Oscar. Doubt similarly contains Oscar-worthy performances, particularly by Meryl Streep as the stern nun and Viola Davis as the shockingly pragmatic mother of a troubled boy.
Doubt is set in 1964, a time buffeted by the winds of change. The revolutionary sixties are in full swing, giving birth to the Civil Rights movement and the free-spirited youth movement. The Catholic Church undergoes its own upheaval as the Second Vatican Council institutes radical reforms in doctrine and practice. It is in this context that a charismatic, but spiritually challenging, new priest arrives at St. Nicolas, a Catholic school in the Bronx. Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has taken the message of the Church’s new direction to heart. He believes the clergy should be friendlier and more like “members of the family.” In the film’s important opening sermon, Father Flynn describes doubt as an integral part of one’s relationship with God: “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.” Although we may at times waver or get lost during our faith journey, Flynn assures his listeners that, “Even when we are lost, we are not alone.”
Metaphorically, and intentionally, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) represents the classic, change-resistant conservative while Father Flynn (Phillip Seymore Hoffman) represents the rebellious liberal. Copyright © 2008 Picturehouse.
On the opposite side of the theological spectrum is Sister Aloysius (Streep), the school’s principal, a strict disciplinarian who relishes the students’ fear of her. To her, Father Flynn represents a dangerous laxness and a seismic shift away from the obedience and dogma that defines the Church and her life. She believes the hard way is usually the right way, sternly reminding her nuns, “Every easy choice today will have its consequences tomorrow.” Metaphorically, and intentionally, Sister Aloysius represents the classic, change-resistant conservative while Father Flynn represents the rebellious liberal. Caught between them is Sister James (Amy Adams), a cheery innocent who insists on seeing the best in people—whether it’s her students or the unconventional new priest.
With the mistrust and personal animosity evident between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius, it only takes a spark for open battle to begin. Donald, St. Nicolas’ first black student, proves to be the catalyst for conflict between them. Father Flynn has clearly positioned himself as Donald’s protector, knowing the boy’s vulnerability and outsider status. But what Father Flynn sees as compassion, Sister Aloysius interprets as “suspicious” extra attention. When Sister James finds slim but troubling evidence that the priest’s attention may be less that innocent, Sister Aloysius has all the evidence she needs to “bring him down.”
Sister James (Amy Adams), a cheery innocent who insists on seeing the best in people, finds herself caught between Sister Aloysius (Streep) and Father Flynn (Hoffman). Copyright © 2008 Miramax.
As the two lock horns, the film explores the difference between fact and certainty—fact defined as truth based on evidence and certainty as truth based on set beliefs or prejudices. Having known a priest who molested boys, Sister Aloysius is convinced that Flynn, whom she opposes theologically, must also be a pervert though she has no hard proof. Father Flynn tries to defend himself, first by claiming authority as her superior, then by accusing her of simple intolerance. Finally, he reveals a plausible alibi, but in so doing, breaks trust with the boy. With or without evidence, Father Flynn knows that Sister Aloysius can start a devastating rumor campaign that will destroy his reputation. After the heated 2008 presidential election, one cannot help but think of character assassination through “viral” rumor and innuendo, and how such insinuations can still cloud our judgment.
Doubt is particularly thought provoking and challenging for Christians, who must grapple with when to seek proof and when to accept things on faith. For many who seek the solace of absolute certainty, knowing “what to do when you’re not sure,” is the hardest thing of all. The film offers no easy answers. Father Flynn, though more likable and certainly more compassionate than Sister Aloysius, remains just evasive enough to leave lingering doubt about his innocence. Though less likable, Sister Aloysius clearly believes she is acting for the greater good. When Sister James says feeling suspicious about Father Flynn makes her feel farther from God, Sister Aloysius replies, “When you take a step to address wrongdoing, you are taking a step away from God, but in his service.” This is perhaps the most haunting idea in the film.
- Although the film is called Doubt, is doubt the only theme or the main theme of the film? Is intolerance another important theme, as Father Flynn implies?\
- How is the message of this film relevant today? Can it be seen in both political as well as religious terms?
- Why did the playwright call this “a parable”? In what way is it like a parable? Does it have a message like a parable?
- What do you think was the meaning of Father Flynn’s opening sermon? Do you agree? Have you ever felt that a moment of doubt brought you closer to God?
- Who are you most like: Father Flynn, Sister Aloysius or Sister James? How do you deal with change? With doubt and uncertainty? Who changed most during the film? Was it for the better?
- What do you think Sister Aloysius meant when she said, “When you take a step to address wrongdoing, you are taking a step away from God, but in his service”? Do you agree? What affect do you think this had on Sister James?
- What did you think of Father Flynn’s pillow story? What did it say abut rumors?
- Have you ever spread a rumor or been the subject of one? How did you feel?
- What did you think of Sister Aloysius’ final confession to Sister James? Even if she was right, were her methods justified?
- How do you answer Father Flynn’s opening question, “What do you do when you’re not sure?” What did you think of the film’s refusal to prove or disprove Flynn’s guilt?
Official Doubt site