Doubt

Juli Kearns Cinema Leave a Comment

Not having seen “Doubt” on the stage, and having read some reviews of the play that laud it over the film and remarks on some differences, I feel at a disadvantage discussing the film, but as John Patrick Shanley, the author, also directed the film, unless he privately changed the motivations of his characters during the shift from stage to cinema, then the unvocalized back story which cements the action should be one and the same. Even if the dialogue is different and the actors in the cinema version have colored and weighted the story elements differently than the stage version, we should find rectification in the film via Shanley’s symbolic choices and editing.

The opening story is this. One Sunday, the progressive Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) gives an impassioned and seemingly personal sermon on doubt, relating the tale of an experienced sailor who, having survived a ship wreck, finds refuge on a raft and sets his course by the stars just before a 20 day fog rolls in that will eventually leave the sailor in the troubled dark of doubting his course and his fate. During this sermon, the severe Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is drawn out of her seat and progresses up the side aisle intentionally terrifying children into alert attention. Though the Father speaks of the isolation of personal doubt, such as doubt as a consequence of knowing one has done something wrong, he ends on the note that doubt is as strong a bond between people as is certainty–and as the sermon ends we see Sister Aloysius staring fixedly at the priest from the side aisle, as if an oppressive shadow opposing his empathetic and consoling spiritualism.

During the sermon, one of the altar boys, Donald Miller, sees a pigeon fly into the dome of the church, the signal of a comforting Paraclete. A shy and introspective loner, the boy is so impressed by the service–and perhaps by the bird’s appearance as well–that afterward he approaches the priest to tell him that was quite some sermon. Father Flynn asks if it meant something to him and the boy replies he would like to “do that”, to be a priest. The Father reaches into a box on a high chest and pulls out a brightly colored toy, a ballerina whose spins are guided by a magnetic mirror. He entertains the boy with it then gives it to the boy as a gift.

The next day, as the students of her school line up in the courtyard, from her window the old guard Sister Aloysius observes the friendly Father Flynn inspecting the students. She sees him grab the wrist of one of the students, William London, to joke about his filthy hands, and she observes London jerk away. Based on this alone, but having had former experience in the matter, Sister Aloysius, who has little use for a progressive, friendlier church, becomes suspicious of Father Flynn and determines to be on the look out for anything questionable taking place at her school, fearing the children under her charge are under threat of a pedophile.

There is never any hard evidence.

By all appearances, Father Flynn’s style is only different from the “hungry dragon” he states Sister Aloysius to be. When Donald Miller returns, one day, from a meeting with the Father in the rectory, and has alcohol on his breath, this only hint at impropriety is explained away by the Father as his having called Miller to his office when he learned Miller had drunk the church’s wine. Rather than embarrassing the boy, at his tearful request, Flynn permits Donald to remain an altar boy. He tells Sister Aloysius that, for sake of the boy, he had hoped no one would ever learn of the incident and reprimands her for prying.

Donald is the first African American in the school. He is alienated from his peers not only through this but by being possibly homosexual. His father beats him. He is having difficult enough time and needs friendship.

Sister Aloysius remains convinced that Father Flynn has taken advantage of the vulnerable boy.

Sister James, who is younger, takes the part of the waffling audience, suspicious when she is in the company of Sister Aloysius, reassured when in the company of Father Flynn, buffeted by the confidences of both.

Though it seems a true Rorschach test regarding the impression of the viewer as to whether the priest is predator or mentor–and the writer/director, John Patrick Shanley, artfully arranges the elements so that the final resting point for every action and its reaction is ambiguity–it still seems to me that, though he only disclosed to the actors playing the priest, both in the film and on stage, whether the priest was guilty or innocent, Shanley likely has engraved this knowledge in the film, extra the dialogue and overt story line.

Must we know what the truth of the matter is? No. The point of the film is given to be doubt. Even if Streep covers us in her skin so that we divine just why she is so certain of Flynn’s guilt, there must remain doubt when no sound evidence is provided. Just as even if we are entirely convinced by Seymour that his character’s intentions are wholly honorable, and that he is only the victim of a 20th century witch hunt, we should again have for him the same doubts as we do for the sister. I say “should” because I, in fact, believe it is impossible to approach Streep’s character and Seymour’s with a balanced level of doubt. Streep must always be at the disadvantage precisely because Shanley has given us more of her, has shown us more of her nature, her character, her intentions. He has given us more of her personal world, her introspections, whereas Seymour’s character is all veneer. We never glimpse behind the curtain into his personal life, whereas we do with Streep.

“I will step outside the church if that’s what needs to be done, though the doors should shut behind me,” she rages. “I will do what needs to be done though I’m damned to hell! You should understand that or you will mistake me.”

If this is only a power struggle, she is willing to give up all that she has to oust Flynn from the parish.

Or are her suspicions the grotesque delusions of a woman who believes Frosty the Snowman is a pagan evil that should be banned from the airwaves. We even are given to know that she is a superstitious type, looking to the wind and blown out electric lights as signs supporting her quest and conclusions.

I’ve listened to Shanley’s interview with Charlie Rose on the play. He draws a comparison between “Doubt” and the “rush to war” with Iraq, saying that he didn’t want to write a political play but that he was inspired by so many people around him not giving room for doubt, that he preferred doubt over a “couch of convictions”. Assuming he had questions about the war, for he states he was troubled by people who expressed doubts being seen as unpatriotic, this divulging actually does more than hint at the innocence of a priest who is the subject of a witch hunt–and I certainly empathize with this. I, too, was troubled by those couches of convictions and doubters being branded as unpatriotic. But I frankly feel it’s a bit of a red herring here, and a little disingenuous his continuing on, in the same interview, that “there’s always something you want to believe” because “it serves some deep purpose or need”, even if this may be true for the majority, for there are truths just as there are lies and propaganda–as in the case with Iraq there were indeed truths buried by lies and propaganda. Just as I think it’s a little disingenuous his remarking that “there’s the wisdom to step aside from your emotions, to step aside from what you want to believe and look at the evidence before you and say I don’t have enough evidence to know this, so this in fact belief that I have is an emotion”. For later in the same interview Shanley states he was raised in an age of certainties, in the Catholic church which had a code of beliefs (certainties), a culture of manners, that much was taken for granted, and that such people are vulnerable to someone who isn’t thinking that way, a predator, and that people who assume that everyone around them is operating from the same base are “blind to obvious things in front of them”.

We can’t have one or the other in “Doubt”. We can’t have the audience beckoned to reflect on the fact that they are relying on emotion rather than fact, that there isn’t at all solid evidence, and at the same time have it be an audience that is wrestling with being “blind to the obvious”. In this way, I think certain discussions, as advanced by Shanley, on the play and film and its inspirations, though he has his purposes, are a rather raw and unfair gaming of the audience. By means of a story in which confidence isn’t assured on the part of the audience, to explore the positive and negative aspects of doubt is one thing. But it is another to artfully permit the audience to follow their own lead on the leash to a place of conviction, whether it be in guilt or innocence, then step to the side and say, in effect, this isn’t a story about these characters at all, but about how each individual member of the audience reached that place of conviction and how they are all wrong, every one of them, in not remaining in a place of doubt. This may be an interesting psychological exercise but only works so far before it becomes an unfair tweeking. We can’t have an audience that is at risk of of the guilt of both being blind to the obvious and of rushing to judgment, one way or the other, based on no solid evidence. In other words, an audience may misinterpret, but the author and director should not place the audience in a position of only being capable of misinterpretation, at least not in the case of a story where it is made known there is a truth and the director/author knows and is privy to this truth. At the very least, don’t be glib about it and assert, as Shanley does in the aforementioned interview, that the reason he’s made a film about doubt is because the world doesn’t need a story about how it’s bad for a priest to be a predator, as we already all know that is so, just as we know there were Nazis and they were bad. For not all of us do know that there are indeed predator priests, and not all of us know why it might be bad to cover up for them.

One could ask, then, how to make a film wherein the audience experiences absolute, unrelenting doubt, if it isn’t manipulated so the audience is only ever in a position of misinterpreting what’s presented? And I’d say, well, you can. With “Doubt”, however, instead you have polarization, the majority of the audience taking firm sides.

Or perhaps I’m only irritated that Shanley smiled throughout his interview with Charlie Rose, as if very satisfied with his game, discussing how he found very satisfying the arguments between couples following the play, and posing that the tension of doubt is a much more vital and lively position to inhabit rather than certitude.

This may be true in many circumstances, but Shanley has set up a situation in which he knows the answers but permits no investigation. Which is problematic. We are told we can only be wrong, no matter our conclusions, we are given no way to sort out this mystery which does have an answer.

Past a certain point doubt itself can become an excuse for the silent, defeated apathy of a public whose opinions are rendered meaningless by ever new twists of artificial facts intended to strand individuals in a quicksand of hopeless acceptance of any answer ever being elusive. Just as doubt can also become the excuse for a zealot’s intolerance.

When Sister Aloysius promises Donald Miller’s mother that she will leave Donald out of her efforts to remove Flynn from the parish, that she will not sacrifice him in her pursuit of the truth, though this is admirable and justified, the audience is deprived the route of investigation and is again gamed into an enforced ambiguity, Sister Aloysius proceeding only on intuition.

Again, must we know what the truth of the matter is? No, but I’m fairly sure that Shanley has inserted clues in the film that have nothing to do with the evidence or lack of it presented, or how we may be convinced by either Streep or Seymour. That doesn’t mean I think it’s possible to divine those clues with certainty, but I believe they’re there.

In the opening pages of the published script of “Doubt” (which I’ve yet to read but am ordering), Shanley dedicates the play to the devotion of nuns, balances this with acknowledging that time after time he was ejected from both sacred and secular institutions for reasons as to which he was unclear (but which one assumes were to do with judgmental authoritarianism sacrificing individuality), and highlights three admirable quotes: “The bad sleep well”, a title of a film by Kurosawa; Ecclesiastes’ “In much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow”; and Ptolemy’s “Everything that is hard to attain is easily assailed by the mob.” And, again, he asserts that the only answer to the play is to reside in a position of doubt, though Sister Aloysius does not sleep well, though she is sorrowful and aggrieved.

Reflection is a theme used in the film. We have it when Sister Aloysius suggests Sister James place on her blackboard a picture of the pope, not out of reverence but that its glass may serve as a mirror so that Sister James can see what is going on with the students behind her back. We observe it when, at the beginning of the film, the organist takes his seat in the choir loft and adjusts a mirror by which he can see the altar and the body of the church behind him. And we have it again when Father Flynn gives Donald Miller the gift of the toy that was a tiny ballerina whose alternately clockwise and counter clockwise whirling dance is choreographed by a magnet in a mirror.

There is one other dance in the film, and it happens to take place after Donald Miller is called to the rectory by the priest, this visit being one which Sister Aloysius takes as suspicious. While Donald is absent, his class moves to the gym for a dance lesson. “Blame it on the Bossa Nova” is the recording to which they practice.

I was at a dance when he caught my eye
Standin’ all alone lookin’ sad and shy
We began to dance, swayin’ to and fro
And soon I knew I’d never let him go

Blame it on the bossa nova with its magic spell
Blame it on the bossa nova that he did so well
Oh, it all began with just one little dance
But then it ended up a big romance
Blame it on the bossa nova
The dance of love

And when our kids ask how it came about
I’m gonna say to them without a doubt

Blame it on the bossa nova with its magic spell
Blame it on the bossa nova that he did so well…


Without a doubt.

Father Flynn advocates love and insists Sister Aloysius has no compassion. Those who believe in his innocence view Sister Aloysius as a tyrant harboring a corrupting hatred. Sister Aloysius decries Flynn as being a person who misuses love and is utterly incapable of regret, for which reason she has hidden her compassion where he will never get at it.

Pedophiles, sociopaths and authoritarians don’t play by the rules and “hard evidence” is often difficult to come by because of their machinations and subterfuge. One of their boldest refuges happens to be doubt, which itself can be manipulated to be absolution. However brilliant the play’s dialogue (and it is, I’ve glanced at it and it is brilliant, superior the film), however devastatingly skilled Shanley is, I question whether it is somewhat unfair that the audience is emotionally involved in a film that is also exploded out of its story frame, ostensibly having nothing to do with characters and plot, and is instead an intellectual exercise in accepting the tension of doubt over a more comfortable couch of convictions.

As to whether Sister Aloysius has any doubts in her conviction that Flynn is a pederast, she does not.

Nor is she comfortable.

“In the pursuit of wrongdoing, one steps away from god,” she says at the end. “Course, there is a price. Oh, Sister James, I have doubts. I have such doubts.”

Some take this as her doubting her condemnation of Flynn, when it is not. Instead, pursuing her belief in Flynn’s wrongdoing, she has stepped away from simpler, easier trust. If to be in the presence of her god is to rest in security and love, then she has taken the course that she threatened Flynn she would pursue, if need be, to remove him from proximity to her students, stepping out of the confidence of an altruistic universe and into the paw of hell.

Was she right? Was she wrong? We can weigh the possibilities all we like and in the end, despite personal feelings as to whose character seems to play truer, not knowing ultimately too whether the performances and script were true to the mark or sacrificed telling bits for sake of maintaining ambiguity, one can really do little more than accept Shanley’s assertion that doubt is all that can be held in any confidence.

Shanley assures that this doubt is the livelier more invigorating position to inhabit. My life is one great big bag of doubt and I accept that; it’s how I daily live. But as one who has known individuals who were indelibly and terribly scarred by pedophiles who did take advantage of individuals assuming that everyone around them was operating from the same base, who were blind to obvious things in front of them, and as one too who knows the fatigue that comes of being made an outsider by fences formed of couches of convictions, I am only exhausted and enervated by “Doubt”. I wish there was less of the psychological exercise to it. Less of Shanley’s playing mate and checkmate with the audience, in order to keep them in the dark. Though I think it’s brilliant, I’m not altogether sure, for reasons given above, that it is honest with the audience, especially when Shanley repeatedly insists that he was not at all interested in the church scandals but rather–and I’m paraphrasing here–used them because they served as a good vehicle for exploring the fallibility of moral certitude.

I fail to understand how and why, if he had no interest in the scandals, he picked them as a vehicle when there are so many other situations from which to choose.

I wonder at any sacrifice of sincerity in broaching a subject he cares nothing about, in service of using it as a launchpad for the exploration of an intellectual exercise in embracing and maintaining the tenuous position of doubt.

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