There’s an extremely interesting film playing in local theaters, but it’s not doing much boxoffice, and it’s already been out for a week. The critics have been lukewarm, in many cases preferring the play on which the film is based. But when is the last time a movie sparked an argument that lasted for two days? That’s one you might want to seriously consider seeing.
The film, and the Pulitzer-prize winning play, is called “Doubt”. The story concerns a Catholic church and school in the ‘50s, when Vatican II has replaced Vatican I, and changes toward a more liberal church seem to be cracking the very plaster.
A free-spirited priest, Father Flynn, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, now leads the congregation.. He is warm and affectionate with the children. The film begins with an excerpt from his sermon. “Even when you are lost like a ship without a sail,” he says, “you are not alone. You are united with everyone else by your doubt. Doubt can be as sure a compass as certainty.”
Moving dreadfully up the aisle like a black-robed Angel of Death, Sister Aloysius, the feared Principal of the school, played by Meryl Streep, swats the head of any child who is nodding of. But her red-rimmed, bird’s eyes flick up to the lectern: what is the pastor talking about? What doubt? Does HE doubt? Sermons don’t come from nowhere. Somehow, psychologically, this starts the ball rolling.
There’s a wonderful scene in which the dinner of the priests – a raucous affair, with raunchy jokes, cigarettes, and belly laughs – is contrasted with the dinner of the nuns, held in perfect lock step and near total silence by the brooding figure of Sister Aloysius. At that dinner, the Principal tells her nuns that she thinks something is wrong at St. James School – she won’t say what – and to watch out.
In the blockbuster film “The Matrix,” a character who can see the future admonishes another character for breaking a vase. “What vase?” he says, turning around to look. In turning around, he breaks the vase. Now the question arises: if she hadn’t said anything, would he have broken the vase?
Impressionable Sister James, Amy Adams – in awe of Sister Aloysius, eager to please, and without much experience – DOES see something suspicious. Father Flynn calls a boy – the school’s only black boy, interestingly – to the rectory for a private meeting. The boy comes back shaken and sobbing, with what might be alcohol on his breath.
Circumstantial evidence, surely. But the specific dynamics in this hothouse are not that of a court of law, and part of the point is to examine them. We have already been shown that men hold all the power here. Sister Aloysius is not even sure she has Sister James fully convinced and on her side. But she has seen pedophilia in the Church before, and she is convinced she is right about Father Flynn; and she is determined to bring him down.
There are three ways to read “Doubt,” and though I think I know which way is correct, so do a lot of other people who disagree with me. Either this is a film about a woman who maintains her role as a disciplinarian because that’s how things work, but who secretly loves children powerfully, and will do anything to protect them from a monster; or it’s about a kind, progressive priest who is persecuted unfairly by a dried-up, hideous crow, and ancient artifact from a system struggling to change. Or, option three: the writer and director, John Patrick Stanley, has calibrated this test of wills so perfectly that no definitive resolution is possible.
The film plays like a thriller if you are convinced that the priest is innocent, or that he is not. If you think no resolution is possible, it’s more academic, making a playwright’s point that wins Pulitzers, but isn’t as satisfying dramatically. Like I said, this one sparks arguments. You should have heard the one at my house. Our life experience determined our baggage. I’ve worked in retail, and have been in the room when Loss Prevention teased a confession out of a thief. My father, a Lutheran minister, has seen gossip in the church destroy a reputation. I was dead certain that I was right, until my parents pleaded that I reexamine the scene pivotal to my argument. I did that. And do you know what? If you go into the scene with the opposite assumption, it plays just fine the other way, like a magic trick. An alarming point to raise about the use of certainty in the search for truth.