When a nun and a priest are in conflict, you know the resulting battles won’t leave anyone unscarred. In John Patrick Shanley’s masterful film version of his Pulitzer-Prize winning play, Doubt, two thousand years of ingrained patriarchy and its resistance take center stage in a small New York City parish. It’s 1964, the year after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and the winds of change from Vatican II in Rome and the growing civil rights movement across the U.S. are turning the American Catholic Church upside down. Amidst all the ritual elegance and the beauty of the church’s rich art and architecture, blind suspicion, that holds no monopoly in time or creed, raises its ugly head.
There are those, like Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson’s War) who welcome the changes, who want the church to be more accepting and compassionate. But many remain like the principal of the parish school, Sr. Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep, Mama Mia!), fighting reform like a lonely pedestrian heading into a howling windstorm. To St. Nicholas School in the Bronx, a typical den of Irish American chauvinism, comes its first African American student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster). As if being a different color isn’t hard enough, Donald is also slightly effeminate, which means his father hates him and he’s the target of school bullies. Fr. Flynn befriends Donald, occasionally putting his hand on his shoulder and encouraging his devotion as an altar boy.
Sr. Aloysius can’t stand Fr. Flynn. He puts too much sugar in his tea, wears his fingernails too long and worst of all, he sends pointed rebuffs to her, disguised in the words of his homilies at Sunday Mass. “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty,” he preaches. Then kindly reminds his flock of God’s eternal presence, “When you are lost you are not alone.”
Sr. Aloysius encourages the other nuns who teach in the school to keep their eyes open for any signs of Fr. Flynn’s imperfection. One day Fr. Flynn calls Donald into the rectory and when the boy comes back to the classroom, he’s visibly upset. This seems terrifyingly suspicious to his naïve young teacher, Sister James (Amy Adams, Charlie Wilson’s War), who reports the incident to her principal. Immediately the older nun jumps to conclusions and decides that Fr. Flynn has acted “inappropriately” with the boy. With screaming self-righteousness, she demands, “What happened in the rectory?”
Fr. Flynn denies all her allegations. “You don’t have the slightest proof of anything!”
“But I have my certainty!” she yells.
“I will fight you,” he says, all pretense at co-existence gone.
“You will lose,” Sister Aloysius pronounces. “I will do what needs to be done though I be damned to hell!”
Sr. Aloysius’ campaign against Fr. Flynn is relentless. Each scene brings a new accusation–and we are convinced the priest is guilty. Then Fr. Flynn explains what really happened, and we fly to his defense. Back and forth–innocent, guilty, innocent–playwright Shanley plays with our powers of judgment and shows them false.
Sr. Aloysius confronts Donald’s mother (Mrs. Miller, Viola Davis, Antwone Fisher) with her suspicious. Fond of the priest, and wary of the nun, Mrs. Miller has an agenda that supersedes concerns of propriety. She desperately wants to keep her son in school, and away from her husband’s fists, until the boy can transfer to another school. In a single scene that is so spellbinding you need to remind yourself to breathe afterwards, Mrs. Miller informs the nun that if something improper is going on, she will not complain. “You can’t hold a child responsible for what God gave him to be,” she says.
In the final battle, Sr. Aloysius employs deception to force Fr. Flynn to request a transfer to another parish. Sister James, who has come to believe the priest is innocent, is horrified at the older nun’s methods. “In the pursuit of wrongdoing,” Sr. Aloysius responds, “one steps away from God.” Sin, it seems, is a small price to pay for her certainty.
Like all good plays, Doubt is set in a specific time and place but its themes belong not only to Catholics, but to people of all religions, to all those who are convinced that they are right and the other person–the other side, the other party, the other country– is wrong. The nagging question throughout the entire play is, why aren’t these people acting more Christ-like? If they did, if they actually lived like disciples of the Lord, they wouldn’t be in this mess. Alas, the stories of saints aren’t very interesting and we need the dramas of failed followers to remind us of our shared humanity.