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Sister Aloysius runs her Brooklyn Catholic school with an iron fist. But what other choice does she have? After all, 1964 is a day and age when discipline is slipping. Laziness and ill manners are ripe to be ferreted out. Fripperies like hair clips and ballpoint pens are everywhere—examples of "modern" nonsense that have no place in a classroom.
Younger nuns such as Sister James may have a naive idea that education can be a joyous experience of learning and interaction. But Aloysius knows better. And she consistently tries to drum those silly notions out of their heads. The good sister's views are backed up by years of experience. Those decades have left her with an uncommon certainty that everyone, young and old, will fail without the proper oversight and a hefty amount of rock-ribbed discipline!
So when Sister James hesitantly approaches her superior with the suspicion that Father Flynn may have taken an inappropriate interest in the school's first African-American student—a boy named Donald Miller—Sister Aloysius takes immediate action. No matter that there is no evidence of wrongdoing. The proof is in the man's progressive nature—he takes three sugars in his tea, after all, and his fingernails are long. He is guilty and will be purged. Of that there is no Doubt.
Doubt wrestles openly, almost poetically, with ideas of right and wrong. And with issues of works and grace. While it seems to suggest that doubt is patently at odds with faith, it also points out that a rigid, rule-driven life can be wholly destructive. It simultaneously illustrates the corrupting force of suspicion—the usually effervescent Sister James, for instance, takes Sister Aloysius' cynical viewpoints to heart ... and loses her joy in teaching.
Still, although Aloysius is painted as a draconian individual, at heart she is trying to follow through on what she perceives as God's calling and daily direction. She gladly takes on the role of protector and teacher to the nuns in her charge and works diligently to keep them from falling into sin or even temptation. The sister rightly points out, "Every easy choice today will mean consequences tomorrow."
Sister Aloysius states, "In the pursuit of wrongdoing, one steps away from God." Indeed, the senior nun commits to actions that she knows are not in line with God's commandments (including lying and blackmail) in order to right a wrong she's certain has been done. But she points out that when one moves away from God, "There is a price to pay." And her sin appears to cause the loss of her own faith.
The priest confesses his great love for his congregation to Sister James, comparing it to her love for her students. When Donald expresses his desire to one day be a priest, Father Flynn encourages the boy. Later, when other students knock books out of the young man's hands, Flynn helps him pick up his scattered papers and comforts him.
Doubt takes place, almost exclusively, in a Catholic school and the connected nuns' quarters. Crosses and religious icons and pictures are in evidence throughout. Several scenes show the parish priest preaching. The children's choir sings hymns. After Sister Aloysius levels her accusations at Father Flynn, he sits and opens his Bible.
Although faith in Jesus Christ is never openly discussed, a reverence for God, references to Scripture and an acceptance of God's hand on daily life is a constant. As is the weighty issue of faith evoked by the movie's title. (More on that in my "Conclusion.")
An incredibly agitated Sister Aloysius removes her cross and slams it to the table, loudly evoking both damnation and hell.
When Sister James sees Father Flynn put his hands on Donald's head, she interprets the physical contact as too intimate. That happens in the middle of a story that revolves around the idea of sexual abuse within the priesthood. But the subject is explored with 19th century decorum.
Still, Donald's mother recognizes her son's "tendencies" (the unspoken implication is that he is attracted to men) and says she appreciates Father Flynn's attentions even after Sister Aloysius expresses concern about inappropriate activity. You can't hold a boy responsible for what God made him to be, Mrs. Miller says. "I'll be standing with my son and those who are good with my son."
The nuns briefly discuss a potential problem involving a female student, whom they fear is a bit boy-crazy. Sister Aloysius says, "Just get her through—intact." A student touches Sister James' shoulder to get her attention and Sister Aloysius scolds him.
During a church service, Sister Aloysius smacks a whispering youth's head. A boy mops at his bloody nose with a handkerchief. (Aloysius believes—and we're led to agree with her—that he hit his own nose to get out of class.)
Crude or Profane Language
One s-word, spoken by a student. Mrs. Miller states that her husband "beat the h--- out of" her son.
Drug and Alcohol Content
We see a number of people smoking, including Father Flynn on several occasions, as well as one of the pupils. Father Flynn and several other priests drink alcohol and smoke at dinner.
Donald is accused of and is punished for drinking altar wine.
Other Negative Elements
Sister James says to her superior, "The students are all uniformly terrified of you." Sister Aloysius replies, "Yes. That's how it works."
Theatrical plays tend to be much more about words and ideas then high-flying, blow-up-the-world action. So they rarely make an impressive transition to today's big screens. But on occasion, a particularly provocative play makes the jump and brings with it a concise storyline and a crispness of language that is almost startling to the average movie fan.
The Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning Doubt is such a play. And such a movie.
Meryl Streep puts on the black-and-white habit of the austere, resolute and thickly brogued Sister Aloysius and is, quite simply, brilliant. With her character at the forefront and the play's author, John Patrick Shanley, in the director's chair, Doubt seemingly accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do: It raises lots of hard-hitting questions in an involving, intimate drama. Then it turns and walks away.
"One thing that did not change from stage to screen is that the audience still lands on the sidewalk afterward with a head full of questions and no certitude from the writer-director," reported New York Times columnist David Carr.
This is a story about a Catholic priest's sinful failings. It is the tale of horrifying accusations hurled at a caring mentor. It is an examination of nuns' evolving feelings about faith, hope and guilt. It illustrates the fallen nature of man and his desperate need for redemption. And it sneers at the faults of organized religion. It is and does all of these things at once. And then, as I've already said, it turns and walks away without so much as a fare-thee-well.
"Let me put it to you this way—you never know what's going on in somebody else's head. You never know what's going on in somebody else's heart," Shanley told The Hollywood Interview. "A lot of time is spent coming up with a conclusion in this story, but it's like life, you don't get to know for sure what really happened. You don't get to know for certain."
So Shanley has crafted a cinematic optical illusion that dares you to question what you think you know. To tilt your head, squint your eyes and mull over what you've seen. And what you haven't. What you believe. What you doubt.
"This is not about the Catholic church," Streep said in a newsblaze.com interview. "It's about who thinks they can control evildoers with force and a firm hand." And yet, it is about the Catholic church. As it is about other things that aren't so apparent:
"The title Doubt really had the power for me, not the Catholic church scandals," Shanley told broadway.com. "And so, yes, I meant that to be implied in a variety of ways as a powerful and useful tool to answer something in the culture. Whether it was the invasion of Iraq—and the certainty that that was the right thing to do—or people in the Democratic and Republican parties who, year in and year out, show up like convicts chained together—having the exact same positions on everything! They're just chained to it. I don't think that's 'thinking.' And that's what functioning, effective members of a culture do—say, 'Look! I have doubts. And that's a good thing. You should have doubts, too. And if you don't, you're a hammer-headed clown!'"
Politics. Culture. Religion. Individual faith. Doubt is, in the end, about exactly what it seems. But that doesn’t mean it's predictable.
"I'd like to attack the notion that movies are about certainty," Shanley said in The New York Times, "about affirming a political profile and validating what people already believe."
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius; Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn; Amy Adams as Sister James; Joseph Foster as Donald Miller; Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller
John Patrick Shanley ( )