Tension of certainty, doubtBy Steve Carpenter
Doubt is, in my estimation, the best film of 2008. I have come to expect a lot from Meryl Streep and most recently from Philip Seymour Hoffman. When put together in a film adaptation of John Parker Stanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, the result is explosive.
The climactic scene when Sister Beauvier confronts Father Flynn with accusations of pedophilia, for which she has scant circumstantial evidence, is one of the most memorable I have seen on film.
Set in 1964 in St. Nicholas Catholic parish in a working-class neighborhood of the Bronx, Doubt pits the avuncular new priest Father Flynn (Hoffman), against a stern Catholic School Principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Streep). Amy Adams portrays a young, hopeful and somewhat naive new teacher, Sister James, who unwittingly gets caught between these two goliaths when she tell Sister Beauvier of concerns regarding her student Donald Miller, the school’s first African-American pupil, who was pulled out of class by Father Flynn and returned with alcohol on his breath.
Beauvier assumes the worst and vows to unmask this monstrous man, destroy him and rid her school of his presence. She tells Sister James, “It is my job to outshine the fox in cleverness” and “When we pursue wrongdoing we step away from God.”
Thus the cat-and-mouse game between the likeable priest and the unyielding headmistress begins. Is Beauvier astute in challenging the priest and protecting her young charges, or has her personal dislike of Flynn clouded her judgment? This question forcibly drives the plot forward.
Meanwhile, Flynn is extremely popular with the congregation, despite Beauvier’s objections to his long fingernails and unscrupulous use of a ballpoint pen. His insightful and accessible homilies resonate with a people rocked by the assassination of their hero, President John F. Kennedy, just one year earlier.
In these turbulent times, he assures them, “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.” He coaches the boy’s basketball team and befriends Donald Miller, the school’s first and only African-American student, who confides in Flynn that he wants to become a priest.
The film explores the tension between certainty and doubt. However, the doubt is not so much religious (“Does God exist?”) but rather legal (“Is he guilty?”) and personal (“Am I doing the right thing?”) or, for Sister James, “Is my compassionate approach to teaching correct, or would I be more effective if I were more strict and used fear, like Sister Beauvier?”
In one of Flynn’s homilies he draws upon a classic view of a stern and angry God, pointing accusingly down at a gossiping woman. The shoe is on the other foot when the rectory’s stained- glass image of the all-seeing eye of God looks ominously down upon Flynn. Meanwhile, prompted by an encounter with Beauvier, he takes notes for a sermon on intolerance, another of the film’s prominent themes.
The struggles of gender and position are clearly portrayed in the unequal treatment of ill-fed and overly serious nuns within a patriarchal society of beer drinking, cigarette smoking, beef eating and raucous priests who run the parish and protect each other.
The contrasts of class and race are also evident as an African-American mother tries to help her son succeed in school and welcomes the attention of the educated and kind Flynn regardless of his motives.
The acting, story line and dialogue carry Doubt to lofty cinematic heights. I doubt you’ll want to miss it.
This film provokes thought and discussion. It doesn’t provide answers and may be dissatisfying to those who like tidy endings. It is rated PG-13 for intense dialogue and mature themes.
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