July issue 2009
Sowing the Seeds of Doubt
Rare is the Hollywood movie that makes you think, challenge deeply-held beliefs and retain enough ambiguity to avoid the didactic sermonising that plagues ‘issue’ movies. For all its flaws — and there are some — Doubt is one of those films.
Set during the period when the Second Vatican Council was grappling with painful reforms that still divide the Catholic world, Doubt stars Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius, the harsh, unbending principal at a Catholic school. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Father Flynn arrives as the liberal-minded parish priest. Inevitably, their world-views clash, leading to an unspoken struggle for supremacy at St Nicholas in the Bronx — a fight that mirrors the larger schism that pitted Catholic against Catholic.
The cat-and-mouse game between the two comes to a head when Sister James (Amy Adams) informs Sister Aloysius that the parish priest may become a bit too close to an African-American student, Donald. To Aloysius, Father Flynn’s guilt is obvious. The audience is always left in, well, doubt.
The main problem with Doubt is the character of Sister Aloysius, who is perfect as a symbol of the reactionary Catholic but is too much of a caricature to ever be convincing as a human being. Her distaste for modernism is so strong that she even refuses to let her pupils use ball-point pens.
The standout performance comes from Donald’s mother, played by Viola Davis. Fearful that her son may be expelled from the school for drinking altar wine, she delivers an impassioned plea to Sister Aloysius. That scene, which lasts all of ten minutes, can be seen as the intrusion of the modernity in the hermetic Catholic world.
Originally conceived for the stage, Doubt is at its best when it tackles difficult issues in a thoughtful and complex manner. It would have been easy to make Doubt as a simple morality tale where the force of light, as represented by Father Flynn, battles the hidebound conservatism of Sister Aloysius. That it doesn’t descend to that level is largely due to a strong script and magnificent acting from Philip Seymour Hoffman, who perfectly balances his competing, even contradictory, instincts: his desire for more openness in the church and his own vagueness about his life and motivations.
As a play, Doubt only had four characters and all the action took place within the stultifying confines of the parish. By shoehorning unnecessary supporting players and adding throwaway scenes, director John Patrick Shanley made the classic mistakes that have always plagued stage-to-screen adaptations. Yet, even that is not enough to detract from the thought-provoking themes of Doubt.
Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.