Doubt (2008)


Warning: spoilers for the ending

In Doubt Meryl Streep plays Sister Aloysius, the fearsome head teacher of a Catholic junior high school in 1960s working-class New York.  The Parish Priest, Father Flynn, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, is a cool, post-Vatican II type of priest who believes that the church needs to loosen up and become more friendly.   Early in the film, Sister Aloysius begins to suspect Father Flynn of an inappropriate relationship with a vulnerable black student in the school.  She decides to confront him about it.   Much of their subsequent intense conflict is seen through the eyes of an innocent young nun, Sister James, who is drawn into the case after admitting to having seen Father Flynn behaving in a way that could be construed as suspicious.  It initially appears that sister Aloysius represents the forces of conservatism in the church, as she apparently hounds the likeable, liberal priest, but as the film progresses, it undermines that narrative and raises the possibility that the nun might be right all along.

I was utterly gripped by Doubt, so I was rather surprised to find that reviews were mixed and most of the ones I read fairly unimpressed with the film.  It’s always a bit of a let-down when you experience a film as “amazing” and find that other people don’t like it.  I now think that your response to Doubt will depend very much on where you’re coming from and your own personal life experience.

I’m interested in feminism and I’d say this is one of the best films about patriarchy that I’ve ever seen, but of course  it also has profound resonances for me because I was raised Catholic.  Some reviewers didn’t seem to find the representation of Catholicism or the relationships between nuns and priests in Doubt to be credible.  This made me laugh because even though Doubt is set in the 1960s and I grew up in the 1980s and 90s, I remember fierce, uncompromising nuns like sister Aloysius.  The Catholic Church has just as much of a history of troublesome, rebellious nuns as it does passive, obedient nuns.  My mother, who is involved in the Catholic Justice and Peace Movement, went to a conference the other day at which the nuns present were talking about a nun who they all call “Attila the Nun.”   And the nuns in the film look like real nuns, not film nuns, who don’t look like nuns at all.  This is probably because they got a Sister of Charity in to consult on the production (well, Amy Adams doesn’t look hugely like a nun, but I thought she got the character down very well).   I also remember, cool post-Vatican II priests who liked to hang out with the kids and gave fun sermons, and yes, some of them turned out to be abusers just as bad as any old-fashioned pre-Vatican II priest could have been.

Whether or not you read the priest as guilty will depend on who you are and where you’re coming from.  Some people will probably find the film’s ambiguity and refusal to give a clear answer annoying, but I don’t think the point is to give an answer on the case; it’s to make the audience think about morality and about the prejudices we bring to the film.   In terms of my own biases, I should say right now that I believed the nun from the beginning and, yes, this presumption of the priest’s guilt was based on my personal experience of growing up Catholic.  I appreciate that other people will read the film in completely different and opposing ways.

One of the cleverest and most chilling aspects of Doubt is the way it undermines the comfortable and dangerous myth that bad people are always  nasty and good people are always nice.  This persists, although we know from real life experience that many very bad people are not only charming and charismatic but capable of doing good things.  We want to like Father Flynn: he’s fun, he smokes and drinks and gives hugs.  But the horrible truth is that it’s perfectly possible that he’s both a child abuser and good at his job of being a priest.  Sister Aloysius is not at all likeable, but many highly moral people can’t afford to be “nice” and it’s just as possible that the unpleasant, ruthless nun is a good person who is trying to protect the children under her care from a predator.   Sister James, the sweet nun, is very nice but she’s certainly not a moral person.  As sister Aloysius says of Sister James, she just wants to be “comfortable” and she’s easily taken in by Father Flynn’s charm.  I saw Sister James as a very dangerous figure, the one who looks the other way and doesn’t want to get involved.  Sister James uses her desire to see the good in people as an excuse for not facing up to the possibility of abuse.

The twist at the end is nasty, but also truthful.  Sister Aloysius confronts the priest, but all that happens is that he gets moved to a different parish and is made head teacher of another Catholic school.  In other words, he gets a promotion and is put beyond reach of anyone who can bring him down.  I’ve always found in my life that you really see patriarchy at work when the chips are down and this is a great representation of such a moment.  The men band together and support each other against women and children and Sister Aloysius finds that she actually has no power in the situation.  Anyone who’s ever tried to get an abusive priest removed from a parish will understand this moment only too well.  So, at the end of the film, when sister Aloysius suddenly breaks down and tells Sister James that she has “doubts”, I didn’t read her distress as being related to any doubt about her hounding the priest or his guilt, but as doubts about authority and the church that she’s given her life to, and which she suddenly sees is corrupt.

If I have any doubts about the film, they’re to do with the racial politics.  On one level, it made sense that an abuser might hone in on the one black child in the school because that child is obviously vulnerable, just as a caring priest might give that child special attention and protection (depending how you read the priest’ behaviour), but at the same time I wonder if the film uses Donald Miller to make points. After all it’s a film with a predominantly white cast and aimed at a predominantly white audience.  Viola Davis as the mother puts in an incredible performance; she’s only on for about 5 minutes and she manages to act Meryl Streep off the screen.   But still, a lot is made of Donald having an abusive father who beats him and the film ultimately presents us with a black mother who is prepared to sell out her son to a possible abuser in order to get him into a good school because she can’t stand up to her abusive husband.   You can see where she’s coming from in the context of the story, but reading some of the objections to Precious, I wonder if this is a case of white culture being comfortable with and even liking the representation of black families as abusive/helpless.

2 thoughts on “Doubt (2008)

  1. Yes to everything you’ve said—especially the point about the use of the black characters: the only thing I’d add is that the American Catholic Church had a big role in the participation of white people in the civil rights movement, which adds another level of horror to the situation. But I don’t think the black family had to be made out to be abusive; it’s unnecessary to the story.

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