Last week was a disappointing week for me. First I watched Rocky. Everyone knows how that went. Then (and I didn’t review it for this site) I watched Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. Another huge disappoint; the film had been hyped relentlessly as guaranteed to convert any non Star Trek fan, but was just as boring and silly as the TV show had been. Two films considered classics, and I didn’t like either of them. I began to have my doubts as a critic. Did I just forget how to watch films?
Then, ironically, I watched Doubt. Many may remember this film; it was released as the sexual abuse cases involving Catholic priests were coming to light. The film was hyped as a sort of expose film involving a nun struggling to convict a priest who has molested a young boy. Well, the film is not about that. The film is about (oddly enough) doubt – that is, how these scandals ultimately played into people’s beliefs about church and about the people around him. The actual relationship between the boy and the priest is kept ambiguous – to the point where I am not even sure what their relationship was. But the film keeps it ambiguous to expose the truth about human nature; it is about how overpowering doubts can be, but how necessary they may be for us to gain wisdom.
The film takes place in 1964 and centers of three characters; parish priest Father Brendan Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) and Sister James (Amy Adams). All three help run a Catholic School in the Bronx. Sister Aloysius has a sort of draconian reputation amongst the students and the staff. Flynn, for example, suggests more secular songs to be sung at the Christmas pageant; Aloysius wants none of that. Flynn, still looking to make his parish appear more open, takes a special interest in Douglas Miller. At first, this makes sense; Miller is the first black student the school has had and may be a target for harassment. However, Sister James and Sister Aloysius begin to suspect the relationship between the two may not be all it seems.
The temptation, again, would be to think about the story as a heroic nun trying to take down a corrupt priest. It isn’t. Father Flynn, at times, comes across as a truly caring man who is making sure that Donald is adjusting to his school. The actual “scene” in which the act supposedly took place is not shown; Flynn’s explanation of what happened does seem plausible. Even one of the characters (and I am sure some of the audience) are convinced by it. But Aloysius is not. After a while, she comes across as a megalomaniac, accusing and destroying a man when she has no proof (which she even admits) that something wrong has happened. Is she right to do this? Reading the description, most people would say absolutely. But the film itself never says so. Even the ending is not one of triumph, but of pain.
But then, we are reminded that no one actually witnessed what happened. Besides,it is easy to sympathize with Father Flynn. The way that Phillip Seymour Hoffman portrays the character implies a man who was damaged in his youth. “What happens when all the girls turn you down?” one child asks Flynn. “Then you become a priest” replies Flynn. So much in his face (and what cannot be readily seen by everyone) implies hurt. Only he knows what happened (and so does Phillip Seymour Hoffman: no one else in the cast was told whether or not he was guilty) and he does everything he can to hide it.
The rest of the cast does remarkably well. Sometimes they do seep into what would be considered melodrama anywhere else, but it was not particularly distracting here. It also works; we are dealing with characters who are having their very natures questioned. How would you react? Even Viola Davis (who is only on screen for two scenes and in one she doesn’t speak) was memorable enough to be nominated for an Academy Award. The scene between her and Meryl Streep, in which Streep tries to find out something about Donald’s home life and Davis lets on more than she meant to, deserves studying in drama schools as an example of how much information can be conveyed by saying nothing at all.
It is to the film’s credit that the acting is good. But simply being a technical exercise is not good enough. I have seen films with good performances but whose themes were so convoluted and the execution so poor that it didn’t matter after a while. Thankfully Doubt does not succumb to that. What is happening by itself is already interesting enough that any performances may not have mattered as much. It could have been a good film either way. But it is the subtle moments among the actors that make it a great film.
This is the sort of film that allows us to think about the world we live in. I had to pause the film practically every minute, just so I could try to absorb the information that it was presenting. This film is not anti religion. This film is not even trying to condemn anyone. It simply tries to show that maybe, just maybe, our instincts should be trusted. The best films are the films that make us think. This film practically makes us meditate.
It was one of the best films of 2008, and may very well have been one of the best of the decade. I am sorry that I did not see it sooner.