Directed by John Patrick Shanley
Starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Joseph Foster
In a sermon one-third of the way through John Patrick Shanley's provocative Doubt, Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) tells the story of an old Irish priest directing penance for one of his parishioners who is guilty of spreading unsubstantiated rumors. Take a pillow to the rooftop and cut it open with a knife, he tells her. After doing so, she returns to the priest, who asks if the feathers have blown away on the wind. When she says they have, he orders her to go and collect all the feathers and sew them back inside the pillow. She says she couldn't possibly do that because the wind has scattered the feathers so widely she doesn't know where all of them have blown. That's what happens when you gossip, the priest teaches.
Adapted for the screen by Shanley from his 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Doubt is set in 1964 and examines a wide range of issues that confront the Catholic Church in the second half of the 20th century. Father Flynn is the embodiment of a Vatican II cleric. He is modern, outgoing, warm and charming. He believes in pleasures of the body, so he eats well, drinks wine with dinner, smokes and takes three sugars with his coffee. He is dedicated to the idea that the church must evolve if it is to remain relevant — if it is to survive. He is more interested in compassion than in discipline. He advocates openness and inclusion. He promotes a mix of secularism with the sacred.
Father Flynn's antagonist is Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the principal at the church school where Father Flynn is the new pastor. Sister Aloysius thinks that things change only for the worse. She is a cold, rigid disciplinarian to her students and a haughty superior to the nuns who work for her. She sniffs damnation around every corner and thinks "Frosty the Snowman" is heretical, an insidious ditty that promotes pagan belief in magic and should be banned from the airwaves.
Father Flynn represents everything Sister Aloysius detests. She spies an opportunity to drive him from her church when a young eighth-grade teacher, Sister James Marie (Amy Adams), reports one of her students, Donald Muller (Joseph Foster), an altar boy and the school's first and only black pupil, was called out of class to meet Father Flynn in the rectory and returned with alcohol on his breath. From that moment forward, Sister Aloysius is convinced Father Flynn is molesting the boy. The absence of proof in no way mitigates her certainty.
What follows is a well-orchestrated give-and-take between accuser and accused, sometimes refereed by the innocent and kind Sister James. Pay careful attention to where Shanley places the characters on the set. When Father Flynn comes into Sister Aloysius' office to discuss the Christmas pageant, he rather insensitively seats himself in the principal's seat behind her desk. Before the scene is over, as the interrogation is launched, they have changed places.
The narrative tension in Doubt proceeds from the battle over what is asserted and what is true. Father Flynn denies he has done anything wrong and has plausible explanations for each of the facts that Sister Aloysius advances to indict him. He called Donald to his study not to ply him with alcohol but to confront him with having been caught drinking communion wine. He has shown the African-American youngster extra attention because the boy is lonely and the victim of mean tricks by white classmates. It is plain that no matter what Sister Aloysius believes to be the truth, she pursues Father Flynn in substantial part out of personal vendetta.
Doubt appeared first on stage and now on film in the aftermath of the child abuse scandals of the Catholic Church. We know that priests have molested thousands of young boys, and the church covered up their transgressions, relocating pastors from one parish where complaints were made to another where parishioners were not warned. In short, we cannot tamp down suspicions that Sister Aloysius, however much we despise her viciousness, may be right.
Doubt is intellectually challenging unwilling to settle for easy answers. It offers towering performances by all involved, including the heartbreaking work of Viola Davis as Donald Muller's distraught mother. In articulating her concern for the well-being of her son, Mrs. Muller's voice is the one we should finally hear.