December 15, 2008


John Patrick Shanley (playwright, screenwriter, director) has done it again. If everyone knew human nature like Shanley, we'd have much more great art filling our screens.

"Doubt" deals with the possible sexual abuse of a twelve-year-old student (Joseph Foster) by Fr. Flynn (Philip "I love acting more than life itself" Seymour Hoffman) in a Catholic school in the Bronx in the 1960's. A hard-nosed, pink-eyed principal, Sr. Aloysius (the incomparable Meryl Streep), is Fr. Flynn's archnemesis. Sr. James (eversweet Amy Adams) is caught somewhere in the middle.

When I saw ads for the play, "Doubt," I thought it might be a slam against priests, the Catholic Church, mean old nuns, or present the Catholic Church's inner workings as simply some huge power struggle. I thought it might be sordid and gloating over the recent clergy sex scandal. It is none of these things. "Doubt" is about a very specific incident, based on an experience from Shanley's past and filmed in Shanley's old neighborhood. Pay close attention to student William London. That's probably Shanley, who said his friends were preyed on, but not him. The incident involves very specific people who take very specific actions and say very specific things to each other. (Ah, the beauty of theater.) The play has translated very well to the screen (except for the screenwriting no-no of beginning a film with a speech), and has loaned the art of filmmaking the rich dialogue of theater, while still flowing like a film.

This is not a hate-fest of the Catholic Church. Not by a long shot. This is not even stereotypical film-Catholicism. Fr. Flynn and Sr. Aloysius are some of the most nuanced and surprising characters you'll see in film all year, while still ringing true to who they are as a priest and sister of a particular era. Roles are clear, but there's a real give and take all around, including the students. These are REAL people (well, as real as simulacra will allow).

The moral teaching/practice of the Catholic Church shines through tarnished behavior as Sr. Aloysius and Fr. Flynn grapple with "what really happened." "Mental reservations," "mortal sin," "virtue," are forces to be reckoned with here. Did Fr. Flynn do it? Do something grossly inappropriate? It seems pretty clear that he did, and nobody would ever have known if it weren't for the deeply-suspicious-of-human-nature nature of Sr. Aloysius. She carries this burden like her cross. Is she too much? Is she overly confident of herself? Yes, but if we had had more Sr. Aloysius' through the years, the elephant may have hit the fan sooner and spared so many children, their families and the whole Catholic Church the terrible grief we now bear.

Sr. Aloysius--as she claims--"knew people." She knew their worst selves and not much else, it seems. (Why? Had she stared down these demons in herself and won?) She didn't need psychological tests to tell her what certain people are like, whether or not they are rehabilitatable, etc. She knew instinctively that abusers are often charismatic, tricky and have an alibi for everything. As is common knowledge now, abusers often think they are the only ones "helping" and "really loving" their victims. She wasn't afraid to do whatever it took to correct the situation. Was she driven by some self-interest? Yes, but not much. Although there was an undercurrent of Fr. Flynn's progressivism (to become a welcoming, kind Church) versus Sr. Aloysius' conservativism and grim asceticism, I believe she really did have the welfare of her students as her uppermost concern. Father: "It's a new time." Sister: "There's nothing new under the sun." Two worldviews. Maybe what Sr. Aloyisus had wasn't all that unique after all: observation, common sense and courage.

We now know that the transfer patterns and even rewarding of dubious priests were commonplace. Ultimately, Sr. Aloysius' pursuit of justice backfired, but she did save HER students at least. "Doubt" is like a little window into yesteryear to see how it all transpired back then, and a window into the complexities of human behavior even in a culture with clearly-defined expectations.

For being about such a heavy issue, "Doubt" has plenty of quick, lighter moments bubbling forth from the characters themselves, just like the tragicomedy life really is.

The clergy sex scandal is not over. It is now deeply embedded in the consciousness of Catholics and everyone else. To cease examining it is akin to lack of remorse, circling the wagons, shutting back down again into a closed, clandestine system. What are we skittish about, afraid of? Do we have something more to hide? Aren't we glad it's all out in the open and being resolved? Pope Benedict is still apologizing. Germans willingly acknowledge the Holocaust and are still trying to make amends. Why? So it doesn't happen again.

At a certain point, Sr. Aloysius bursts out at Fr. Flynn: "What are you doing in the priesthood anyway?" An excellent question. To hear the oxymoron "pedophile priest" means that sick men got themselves ordained under the gaze of the shepherds, and went on to act out on their sickness, again and again, under the same auspices. The same could be said of public school, Cub Scout and Little League gatekeepers. Maybe what was needed was a little more accountability akin to the religious life of the good Sisters who were certainly aware of each other's doings.

I didn't understand what was meant when Sr. Aloysius said that in "pursuing wrongdoing" (that is, correcting injustice) we must go away from God a little. Maybe things like her lie?

Did Father cave in to Sr. Aloysius because he realized she would destroy his reputation either way because of her "certainty"? It doesn't seem so. He made a confession of sorts to her. She has no compassion on him (in her own words), but do we? (We CAN compassionate and stop an abuser at the same time.) Do we see an adolescent personality that hasn't developed properly, fully? Someone who holds out hope for the Spring? Someone who perhaps was abused himself? In the USA, the law says we're innocent till proven guilty. Sr. Aloysius doesn't have much proof, and having done things her own way (almost blackmail style) out of necessity (she knew the hierarchy wouldn't listen to her/believe her, and she was right) she became a judge and jury of one.

I could only give "Doubt" 4 1/2 stars (hearts) out of a possible 5 because of the ending. Thank God it was only one sentence. I don't mind Sr. Aloysius' frailty, I just don't want to have any doubts about her doubts. Were they about Father or her faith? But maybe that's Shanley's whole point. Otherwise, Bravo! Bravo!

Check out this new book: "Broken Trust--Stories of Pain and Hope from Clerical Abuse Survivors and Abusers"

There is an organization of over 300 (and growing) Catholics who commit their daily sufferings in reparation for the scandal: Join us!


  1. I just saw the TV promo for this movie and was extremely intrigued. Five minutes later I was catching up on blogs and found your wonderful review.
    Like you I figured it is a movie set out to make the Catholic Church look bad. Your review made me look past what I assumed it was about and look deeper into the story itself.
    Great review! I look forward to seeing the movie now.

  2. Would the movie gotten a 5 star if it wasn't frailty at the end that made sister doubt? What if it was her faith that was in question because she had to resort to lying to push the priest out of her school? Watch it may be the latter.

  3. Sr. Aloysius' "lie" actually turned out to be true. She guessed about something in the priest's past which turned out to be true--in order to get him to confess. As you can probably tell, I'm on Sr. A's side! :0