Friday, December 10, 2010

DOUBT (2008): Pedophilia and the Catholic Church

Doubt is a 104 minute film that was written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, and focuses on three primary characters.  Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) heads up a small Catholic Parish in the Bronx just shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  He is a progressive Priest beloved by his congregation and especially the youth of the church for his message of forgiveness and tolerance in these changing times that would soon lead to Vatican II.   Sister James (Amy Adams) is the young nun that teaches history at the Parish school.  She is young and idealistic and inspired by the sermons of Father Flynn.  Then there is Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) – the stereotypical nun feared by all and Principal of the Parish school.  She is puritanical and severe to an extraordinary degree with both the students and fellow nuns, and she is suspicious of all behavior that departs from devoutness and orthodoxy.  Sister Aloysius is possibly the only individual in the entire Parish unimpressed with the methods of Father Flynn.
A series of coincidences leads Sister Aloysius to the suspicion that Father Flynn may have molested a young black boy in the Parish by the name of Donald Miller (Joseph Foster).  There is virtually no evidence that this actually occurred other than Sister James noting Donald’s distraught behavior and the smell of wine upon his breath, and then noticing Father Flynn depositing a t-shirt into Donald Miller’s locker.  (Sister James, almost to the end of the movie, can never be convinced that Father Flynn is actually guilty.)  The matter is further complicated when we discover that Donald’s mother (Viola Davis) is more concerned with Donald making it through the school year with passing grades than she is that Father Flynn may be molesting the boy.  As she tells Sister Aloysius, she believes Donald to be gay in any case and he is better off under the protection of Father Flynn than to be beaten near to death by his father should Donald’s dark secret be made public.  After a series of confrontations between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn, the shrewd nun beguiles the Priest into admitting that he may have a past.  Sister Aloysius lies to the Father to make him believe that she possesses knowledge that she really does not have.  The good sister gives the Priest no choice but to put in for a transfer to another parish.  In the end, Father Flynn is put in charge of an even bigger parish (an essence, a promotion), no one will take Sister Aloysius’s word that there may have been wrongdoing, and even Sister Aloysius cannot be certain that Father Flynn was guilty of molesting the young boy.
Doubt is a decent movie with some gaping holes.  Even if it was to no avail, I kept wondering why Sister Aloysius didn’t simply just question Donald Miller about what had occurred.  Certainly he may lie to her, but Sister Aloysius seemed to be a fairly good judge of whether one was or was not telling her the truth.  Why not at least give it a try?  I also felt it was contrived to make the victim and confused about his own sexual orientation.  Why couldn’t it simply have been an Irish neighborhood kid more typical of attending a school such as this one?  Also, Sister Aloysius breaking down at the end and crying, while confessing to Sister James that she had “doubts,” seemed out of character.   I know that her doubts are a metaphor for the danger of losing her religious faith or at least her beliefs in the sanctity of the Catholic Church to which she had focused so much of her energy.  But instead, what almost comes across in the movie is that she is expressing doubts in her own mind about Father Flynn’s guilt.  Father Flynn likely got away with doing something wrong and there’s no need to feel sorry for him.  If Sister Aloysius is going to shed tears it would be better that these tears be tears of anger aimed at a church that’s allowing young boys to be molested rather than tears of doubt and self-pity. 
I confess to being conflicted about this movie and the the difficulty I have with the film does concern the movie’s ambiguous ending.  We have recently had an epidemic of movies with open endings where we are not able to be sure of what ultimately happened, and this has occurred in No Country for Old Men, Atonement, The Wrestler and to some degree The Reader.   These are not necessarily bad films, but it’s easy to grow tired of directors playing hide the ball with what they are trying to say.  I’m not sure if the moviemakers in these films are confessing the limits of what they know or are demonstrating a failure of nerve.  I think the ambiguous ending of Doubt results in letting the Catholic Church off of the hook and instead make the blame for the church’s problems appear to be due to the lack of vigilance of certain individuals within the church.  The makers of Doubt might simply have been trying to evade controversy by toning down the criticism of the church.
I’m an outsider to the Catholic Church, so I can’t speak to everything a devoted Catholic nun would feel concerning the happenings in this film.  However, Sister Aloysius was obviously the kind of nun that seemed less concerned with being popular than doing what was right.  The kind of behavior she exhibited would not have won favors of anyone, but she only cared that the church would deliver what it promised.  Take away the recent accusations of molestation within the church and it seems like the modern Catholic Church has done more to alleviate suffering than any other major Christian Church – at least since the 1960s – so Sister Aloysius had the right to hope.  But Doubt features a priest that likely molested a young boy, and we now know this kind of activity has been going on for a long, long time.  I would hope that someone as observant as Sister Aloysius was and who was completely committed and devoted to her beliefs would experience more than simple doubts when confronted with the circumstances of sexual misconduct.  She should have been outraged.  The film portrays her as the type that probably would have made an appearance in front of the Papal office itself and risked excommunication to address this problem.  She may have even left the cloister and swore off the Catholic Church forever.  I think that Sister Aloysius’s behavior throughout the movie was consistent with this – until the very end where she expressed doubts and seemed resigned to what had occurred.  Because of this, I have doubts that Doubt went far enough.  Doubt wouldn’t do enough to surprise or outrage devoted Catholics, even those that may have cared for the church as much as Sister Aloysius.  Doubt fails to take seriously the greatest problem facing the church today and its greatest moral failing in recent decades.
The acting in Doubt is excellent.  Some reviewers seemed to think that Meryl Streep was playing more the caricature of a nun than the real thing, but we do see Sister Aloysius project courage and a certain compassionate wisdom that is surprising in a character that would otherwise seem devoid of human feeling.  Phillip Seymour Hoffman definitely gives a more nuanced performance in that we see him sliding from what seems to be an admirable person into the role of a likely pariah.  Amy Adams plays mostly a type, but it’s a type that brings along with it a certain humor that makes the more intense moments in the movie feel bearable.  I actually liked the filming in its depiction of symbolism, and this does make viewing of the film seem more than watching a stage-play – which is from what the film was adapted.  The blowing leaves, the raging storms, the nun habit, the light bulb that kept blowing out were, if a bit too obvious, well chosen symbols easily identified by a movie audience.
If I annoy my readers by giving too much of the plot of a movie away, I can’t do it here because the whole plot for Doubt was basically divulged in the movie previews for everyone to see.  I actually commend the filmmakers for doing this because they were at least secure enough in the work product they made that a quality film includes more than just a synopsis.  Knowing what occurs in advance has never ruined a film for me.  What has ruined films for me has been filmmaking techniques that hide the fact the movie has almost no substance.  I’d rather watch a television sitcom that doesn’t pretend to say anything meaningful than be present through some muddled piece of crap that mistakes a somber story for a relevant one.  And so in Doubt we have less game playing than usual in the promotion of the film.  We probably have less game playing with the film itself than we have had in many recent movies.  Unfortunately, we still have some of the same trickery that has upended other films and comes very close to upending this film as well.

March 9, 2009
© Robert Miller 2009

No comments:

Post a Comment