Saturday, November 6, 2010
Posted by Pax Romano at 5:12 PM
My fascination with this film began a little over a year ago when I first rented the DVD. By the time the end credits were rolling, I was ready to restart the film and watch it again. At first, my reason for another viewing was to see if maybe I had missed something; some plot point that cleared up the ambiguity of the story’s denouement. At least that’s what I told myself.
The second viewing actually took place a day or two later. It was a Saturday morning, very early. I settled in on the sofa and sipped a mug of coffee and found myself again mesmerized by this strange and fascinating tale of an avenging Mother Superior who goes toe to toe with an alleged pedophile priest.
Set in the late fall / early winter of 1964, Doubt takes place at an inner-city Catholic grade school where Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) rules the roost like some kind of Ninja in a black bonnet. Sister Aloysius is not fond of ball point pens, candy, sugar, berets or long fingernails. She strikes fear into the hearts of her students as well as the rest of the nuns who teach at the school. More that that, she’s also not afraid to physically discipline her charges. Her only fear seems to be the winds of change that are blowing around her (both figuratively and literally), and she holds on with an iron grip to the past as she sees societal changes slowly creeping into her own cloistered existence.
A young nun, Sister James (Amy Adams) is also a teacher at the school, and while it is obvious that she wants to impress Sister Aloysius, she’s also more concerned with teaching her students than terrifying them. Strangely enough, though Sister James appears the most innocent of the three main characters, her actions are what set in to motion the film’s story.
One afternoon, Sister James notices something that she finds suspicious concerning the school’s only African American student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), and Father Flynn. Once she reports her suspicions to Sister Aloysius, Pandora’s box opens and no matter what she might try to do to close it up again, Sister James can not.
Doubt deals with very a delicate, but very timely, subject matter; the sexual abuse of a minor at the hands of a Catholic priest. And while it might seem a simple leap for the viewer to believe this accusation against Father Flynn…well, as Ringo Starr once said, “It don’t come easy”. Indeed, my obsession with this film is partially based on my looking for clues as to the priest’s guilt or innocence. And that’s just it – there are no real clues, no witnesses, just a strong suspicion and whatever baggage the viewer brings to the table. Personally, I find myself flipping back and forth every time I view this film. One minute, every outrageous accusation that Sister Aloysius throws at Father Flynn makes perfect sense, then later, it just seems like she’s got some sort of hidden agenda, and maybe Sister James was right when she said to her, “You just don't like him! You don't like it that he uses a ballpoint pen. You don't like it that he takes 3 lumps of sugar in his tea. You don't like it that he likes Frosty the Snowman and you are letting that convince you of something that's terrible... Just terrible...”
Amy Adams take on Sister James could easily be overlooked, but that’s because she plays the young teaching nun so effortlessly. Adams gives this character heart and a conscience. She’s still feeling her way through the world of teaching and the convent life, she still seems to actually care for the children she teaches. I think Adams really shines in the one scene where, disgusted at herself for the trouble she might be causing, she mimics Sister Aloysius and starts berating one of her students. Later on you can see how heartbroken she is for her actions.
Another reason I am obsessed with Doubt is due to what I call “The Showdown Scene”. This is the moment of the movie when Streep and Hoffman’s characters face off – it is a masters class in acting. It’s also a brutal moment when it is hard to tell exactly who is really the bad guy. This is when Sister Aloysius proclaims that she has no proof, but that she does have her “certainty” and then, looking both crazed and defiant, clutching her crucifix like it might be a dagger she screams at the priest,”I will step outside the church if that's what needs to be done, till the door should shut behind me! I will do what needs to be done, though I'm damned to Hell! You should understand that, or you will mistake me. “ Clearly this is woman with a rather large axe to grind. So when Father Flynn looks defeated, I ask myself is it because he’s guilty, or is it because he’s up against such an angry, unbalanced adversary who is willing to go to the police. Maybe it was just easier for him to walk away, than risk public humiliation.
But in the end, Father Flynn does leave – reassigned to another parish (with a promotion!) and by now the viewer might be willing to believe that he was up to no good, that Sister Aloysius did have the goods on him after all (she tells him at one point that she spoke to a nun at his last church). But then we discover that was a lie. And in the film's waning moments, we start to ask ourselves what went on. If that’s not enough, in the final scene, Sister Aloysius is sitting with Sister Jane on a bench in the dead of winter and the Mother Superior breaks down in tears, once more clutching that crucifix like a dagger, but then hiding it under her tunic and sobs, “Oh sister, I have doubts. I have such doubts!” That’s when I usually scream, “About what? His guilt, your faith in God, the way your run the school, your life’s profession?” And then I tell myself, I am going to have to watch this movie again, maybe then I’ll figure it out.
Who knows, maybe I never will.