Doubt. 2008. John Patrick Shanley, director. United States.
One of the more memorable roles for Philip Seymour Hoffman, to me, was as Father Flynn in Doubt. Set in 1964, Flynn is a priest in the Bronx. Sister Aloysius, principal of the school attached to the parish Flynn administers, becomes suspicious of the relationship between Flynn and one of the students in her school. A tagline for the film reads: “There is no evidence. There are no witnesses. But, for one, there is no doubt”. This encapsulates the struggle that will unfold between the priest and the sister.
The viewer, too, is drawn into this struggle. Pulled either in the direction of Flynn or of Aloysius, the viewer is cautioned against any certitude that might be developing. Those drawn toward exonerating the priest will perhaps feel that, in Sister James, they have found a representation of their surety. However, upon telling Aloysius that she is convinced the priest has not behaved wrongly, James is told: “You are not convinced. You just want things to be resolved so you can have simplicity back”. Those disposed, though, toward the guilt of the priest, must hear Flynn tell Aloysius: “There are things beyond your understanding. Even if you feel certainty … that is an emotion not a fact”. Doubt reminds neither to simply gravitate toward that which will restore simplicity nor to confuse perception with reality.
Reinforcing that ambiguity is the skill with which these characters have been written. One of the better sets of scenes, establishing how Flynn inhabits a world different than Aloysius, is the contrasting moments of each at dinner. In the first, the sisters eat in mandated silence. Aloysius, at one point, glares at Sister James as James breaches dining etiquette. When Aloysius does, eventually, ring a bell to initiate conversation, what follows bears more the mark of an interview or the grilling of a subordinate than of an exchange between equals. In contrast, the dining priests are loud and full of life. Laughter features prominently and music is played. The priests smoke and drink and tell stories that, I suspect, would not be repeated in their homilies.
Despite these seemingly different worlds, and the tendency of each world to attract or repel (and, therefore, to contribute to the evaluation of guilt or innocence in Flynn), the viewer has his or her picture complicated by the nuanced presentation of both Aloysius and Flynn. Aloysius, for example, is more than an unsentimental authoritarian. One major concern of hers, throughout Doubt, is that attention not be drawn to the declining sight of one sister. She tells Sister James: “If they find out Sister Veronica is going blind, then she’ll be gone. If you see her unsteady, take her hand.” On another occasion, Aloysius discreetly helps Veronica find her eating utensil. While not particularly magnanimous, scenes such as these remind that while Aloysius may indeed be gruff she is not necessarily uncaring.
Just as there is more to Aloysius than her unflattering moments, so also Flynn is less than the sensitive and collegial person he projects. He takes the seat of Aloysius, in her office, and is oblivious to her offense. He criticizes the Lenten choice of Aloysius in the presence of one her subordinates and, upon hearing Aloysius air intolerance, begins to scribble something in a notepad. A homily theme, he responds when asked, on “intolerance”.
It is a homily, with doubt as its theme, which first drew the attention of Aloysius to Flynn. Flynn had preached that doubt can be a bond as powerful and as sustaining as certainty. It is a theme that, perhaps, some religious persons find incompatible with their own spiritualties. When that lack of certitude appears to be entertained by a coreligionist, it can be experienced as surprising and can provoke the searching Aloysius sets upon.
Some of the better explorations of doubt occur in the literature of Graham Greene (a writer who, like John Patrick Shanley of Doubt, possesses enviable skill in crafting homilies). After publishing the 1960 novel A Burnt-Out Case, a difference of opinion arose between Greene and his friend Evelyn Waugh. Greene had presented his central character Querry as having lost his faith and that character made some readers uncomfortable. They felt that, through Querry, Greene had announced doubts he could not overcome. In one letter to Waugh, Greene would exasperatedly write: “If people are so impetuous as to regard this book as a recantation of my faith I cannot help it. Perhaps they will be surprised to see me at Mass.”
A reminder of Doubt is that the self-questioning needed to avoid simply gravitating toward that which will restore simplicity, or toward confusing perception with reality, is a manifestation of human growth and not a weakness of character.
Doubt has an MPAA rating of PG-13 for “thematic material”.