It is easy to avoid second thoughts if you don’t bother with first ones. Mistaking embers for universal daylight, thoughtless people never know what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul.” George W. Bush, who claims to be sound asleep by 10, refuses to admit failure or hesitation, yet even Mother Teresa was wracked by doubt. “I am told God loves me,” the Catholic missionary wrote in a posthumously published letter, “and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”
John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt might not touch the soul, but it is an efficient machine for both pondering and generating uncertainty. It is driven by ambiguity over whether Father Brendan Flynn (Hoffman) sexually abused 12-year-old Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), a student at St. Nicholas School in the Bronx. Both the film and its earlier incarnation as a stage play, which I saw on Broadway in 2005, when it won a Pulitzer, drop enough hints to settle the question, but full disclosure of how Doubt dispels doubt would be churlish in a review. Nevertheless, most audiences apparently come away from viewing the work torn between admiring Flynn as a paragon of Christian benevolence and despising him as a child molester.
The film, which Shanley directs — and opens up — from his own play, is first and foremost a bout of spiritual mud wrestling between two fierce adversaries: Father Flynn, a kindly parish priest whose faith is expressed in compassion not submission, and Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Streep), the martinet who runs St. Nicholas. Swathed in her ancient, elaborate black habit, Sister Aloysius conducts a reign of terror against the nuns and pupils unfortunate to be under her authority. “The dragon is hungry,” quips Flynn as Big Nun begins to bully a hapless boy.
Though Father Flynn is technically her superior in the church’s patriarchal hierarchy, Sister Aloysius contrives to outmaneuver him. The electrifying confrontation between Flynn and Aloysius pits spirit against letter, liberal against conservative, tolerance against discipline. The casting of two preeminent American actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman as the priest and Meryl Streep as the nun, ensured that Doubt would assume the monstrous proportions of Dracula Meets the Wolf Man. So much scenery, in the spectacularly drab parochial school and neighborhood church, gets chewed that confession is in order for the venial sin of mastication. (A strident scene in which Viola Davis, playing Donald’s mother, weeps through her nostrils while standing up to Sister Aloysius’s hectoring is less a matter for Oscar than Sudafed.)
The story takes place in 1964, when Vatican II, the Second Ecumenical Council, convened by reformist Pope John XXIII, was challenging many of the Church’s medieval beliefs and practices. “It’s new times, Sister,” Flynn tells Aloysius, who cringes to see her students dance to newfangled rock ’n’ roll. “We should change.” He might as well be Barack Obama instructing the American Enterprise Institute on “the change we need.” Though Sister Aloysius tries to shut the windows of her Catholic school, the winds of change — acting through Shanley, eager to implicate nature in his stagecraft — blow papers about her office. The face-off between Flynn and Aloysius is a metaphor for the pull between revolution and reaction during the decade that cast the Black Panthers, the Beatles, and the Weathermen against George Wallace, John Wayne, and J. Edgar Hoover.
The enrollment of one black transfer student in St. Nicholas, in a working-class Irish and Italian parish, signals social change in the year of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Fleeing bullies at his public school and physical abuse from his father, Donald arrives at a Catholic institution ruled by a tyrant who gloats when one of her nuns tells her: “They’re all uniformly terrified of you.” Like Machiavelli, Sister Aloysius would rather be feared than loved. When Flynn responds lovingly to the boy’s insecurities, she proves veritably Machiavellian in plotting to expose the priest as a pervert. When Flynn asks for the proof behind her accusation, she — like Jim Inhofe insisting that global warming is a “hoax” or a Creationist disdaining fossil evidence — responds that she does not need proof: “I have my certainty.”
But if the sister controls her school, the priest has his pulpit, and during one Sunday sermon, Father Flynn proclaims: “Doubt can be a bond as powerful as certainty.” Doubting doubt, Sister Aloysius is sitting in the pews, but the message is aimed beyond their little church in the Bronx, to the audience watching Doubt. Rejecting dogma, which closes the mind and freezes the heart, the film affirms the value of tenderness, tolerance, and innovation. The fully spiritual life is fraught with doubt.
Art does not work as catechism, however, even if the doctrine that it is inculcating proclaims that it is best to be wary of doctrine. For the film to work dramatically, we must, like the ingenue teacher Sister James (Adams), be ambivalent about choosing between Aloysius and Flynn. An unambiguous battle between good and evil might work for a summer blockbuster or a political campaign, but it is not a recipe for sophisticated cinema. Yet, because anyone going to the movies is already receptive to change, the jolly priest has a built-in advantage. “It is unsettling to look at people with suspicion,” observes Sister James, and most of us would rather be Santa Claus than Joseph McCarthy. What restores the balance somewhat is the fact that Streep’s Aloysius is such a ferocious contender that we are forced into awe of her energy and discipline, if not her antiquated ideology. A moment of weakness that exposes her vulnerability encourages our sympathy. Furthermore, we know now what most Catholics did not know in 1964 — that priests throughout the world were sexually abusing boys under their supervision and that leaders of the Church were colluding to cover up the crime. If there is a possibility that Father Flynn molested vulnerable young men and that his bishop protected him, should the genial priest be afforded the benefit of the doubt? •