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Doubt (2008)

A movie directed by John Patrick Shanley

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"Doubt Can Be a Bond as Powerful and Sustaining as Certainty."

  • Jul 23, 2009
Rating:
+4

“A truth that’s told with bad intent…

Beats all the lies you can invent.”

-William Blake

 

“It was the schoolboy who said, ‘Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.’”

-Mark Twain

 

There’s a certain quality that a simple work of art possesses that allows it to transcend differences of perspective and opinion, that makes it appealing to people of separate demographics, and that enables people with contrary perceptions to unite in the acknowledgment of its greatness: that quality is ambiguity.

What could be more provocative or more stimulating than the telling of a story with an infectious question at its center, and when at the center of that question there is no single answer, but rather a whole other series of questions? That is essentially what is at the heart of playwright and filmmaker John Patrick Shanley’s stage play and film Doubt. The story, set in the 1960s, a time of political and social turbulence and of great reforms, tells of opposing forces and contrary viewpoints and how human beings can either be bonded or driven apart by their frailties.

 

The stage play of Doubt, which was known as Doubt: A Parable, was indeed simple in its minimalist approach using few actors and fewer sets, yet it created an atmosphere, both emotionally and intellectually, that couldn’t have been much more complex or multi-faceted.

Much of John Patrick Shanley’s inspiration came for the story came from his own experiences and memories of having attended Saint Anthony’s Catholic School in New York during the ‘60s. He remembered having been taught by a group of nuns, known as The Sisters of Charity, and how he had simultaneously admired them while being intimidated by their authoritarianism. Shanley also recalled the strange rivalry between the male priests and the female nuns and how it reflected a gender bias within the church. Taking these things in mind and artistically combing them with the church sex abuse scandals, which have captured the attention of the public, he’s created a story that has little event, only a handful of characters, a relatively slow pace, and yet it contains more suspense and a more powerful emotional impact than most films or plays.

 

 

 

“Today’s Catholic church seems to reward authoritarian personalities, who are clearly ill, violent, sexually obsessed and unable to remember the past.”

-Matthew Fox

 

“A belief is like a guillotine, just as heavy, just as light.”

-Franz Kafka

 

It’s 1964, one year since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy threw the American people into an existential tailspin, and clearly social reform is on everyone’s mind, but the question remains as to whether the country should return to the rigid conservatism of the previous decade or turn to the progressive liberalism that’s begun to sweep the nation. Amidst this turmoil tensions begin to arise between the races and genders, and at stake is nothing less than social equality itself. Perhaps nowhere is this struggle between antiquity and modernity more apparent than in the church.

 

Sister Aloysius has been the most feared figure at Saint Nicholas Church School for quite sometime and she’s known for her rigid traditionalism and strong belief in discipline. However, the parish’s new priest, Father Flynn, believes that the children at the school and the churchgoers should be related to on a more human level, with compassion and acceptance. During one of Father Flynn’s sermons, when he extols the virtue of doubt and its ability to bond people in a time of difficulties, Sister Aloysius is appalled because she views this as an invitation to disbelieve in God. In her mind, this is heresy, and yet the churchgoers seem to be able to relate to it. This horrifies her and she immediately takes note to keep a close eye on Father Flynn. During dinner that night, Sister Aloysius tells the other nuns that she has concerns about the direction the school seems to be going in and to keep their eyes open for anything out of the ordinary.

 

Meanwhile, the young and innocent Sister James, who teaches the children in the school, begins to notice that the school’s only African-American student, Donald Miller, who’s also an altar boy, has been acting strangely. One day after visiting Father Flynn in the rectory, she observes that he’s acting very strangely and furthermore that he has alcohol on his breath. Naturally, being true to her word, she reports this to Sister Aloysius, who immediately suspects the worst: that Father Flynn may have molested the by in some way after giving him alcohol. Under the false pretenses of discussing that year’s Christmas pageant, Sister Aloysius arranges a meeting between herself, Sister James, and Father Flynn. During the discussion, Sister Aloysius asks how Father Flynn thinks Donald Miller should be used in the play. She emphasizes the importance of him not being too visible or being put aside, but Father Flynn proposes that he be treated like any other student in the play because the color of his skin is no excuse to treat him differently. Then Sister Aloysius brings up the fact that Father Flynn had visited with Donald Miller in the rectory and that was “special treatment” as this wasn’t something typically done. She also mentions the boy’s unusual behavior upon his return to class and the smell of alcohol on his breath. Father Flynn seems, at first, nonplussed but when Sister Aloysius becomes accusatory he becomes impatient and refuses to discuss things further under the current circumstances. But after Sister Aloysius threatens to tell the Bishop, Father Flynn relents and explains that Donald had been drinking altar wine that morning and that he didn’t want people to know because he feared that it would further alienate the boy if he were removed from the altar boys.

 

Though Sister James seems satisfied with Father Flynn’s explanation Sister Aloysius doesn’t believe him for a second. After having a discussion with Father Flynn and hearing his personal philosophies on how the church needs to be more welcoming and less judgmental, and how Sister Aloysius and her fellow conservatives are holding the church back and limiting its potential to reach out to those who need spiritual guidance the most. Later Sister James goes to Sister Aloysius to tell her of the conversation she had with Father Flynn and how it laid her worries to rest, but Sister Aloysius insults her by suggesting that she’s simple and naïve.

Desperate to prove that something illicit had indeed happened between Father Flynn and Donald, Sister Aloysius contacts Donald’s mother and arranges a meeting. When they meet, Sister Aloysius learns about Donald’s home life and how he was severely bullied by the kids at his last school, how his father beats him, and how he’s so lucky to have someone like Father Flynn to look after him. Sister Aloysius suggests that she and Mrs. Miller go for a walk to discuss things further. When Sister Aloysius explains the reasons for her concerns, her belief that Father Flynn has formed an inappropriate relationship with Donald, she is met with a great surprise. First of all, Mrs. Miller doesn’t seem to be entirely surprised or worried about such a possible relationship, and secondly, she reveals something that Sister Aloysius never expected about Donald. Sister Aloysius explains that Father Flynn and Donald must be kept at a distance from each other until she can have Father Flynn removed from the school and the church, but Mrs. Miller objects when Sister Aloysius suggests that Donald might also need to be taken out of the school. Sister Aloysius can’t fathom any mother allowing her son to continue a relationship like this and she can’t understand how to solve the problem, but she knows she must.

 

Later, Father Flynn comes in to Sister Aloysius’ office and confronts her about the meeting with Mrs. Miller and demands that she abandon her absurd smear campaign against him. But Sister Aloysius insists that she is certain of his guilt, though she has no physical proof or even an admission from Donald that anything has happened. She threatens to have Father Flynn removed and that she will by any means, do so, even if she has to call every other church that he’s served at to find something incriminating in his past. When she suggests that she has contacted a nun at one of his old parishes, Father Flynn is furious that she contacted a nun, a woman, and not the priest or the bishop, a man, as is customary. After their argument escalates, Father Flynn promises that he won’t give in and that he will not be removed from the church while Sister Aloysius swears that she will not rest until he either admits his guilt, willfully resigns, or is forcibly removed by the Bishop. Ultimately, Father Flynn does resign and in Sister Aloysius’ mind this confirms her suspicions.

Later she discusses this with Sister James. Sister James can’t believe that Father Flynn could ever have committed such a heinous sin and she asks how Sister Aloysius got him to resign. Sister Aloysius simply explains that all she had to do was tell Father Flynn that she had called a nun at his former parish and learned all that she needed to know. But when Sister James asks Sister Aloysius what the nun told her, she is shocked to find out that Sister Aloysius lied to Father Flynn and that she never contacted any nun. Sister Aloysius explains that the fact that Father Flynn reacted to her lie with guilt and resignation, that this was proof of his transgressions. And yet, Sister Aloysius felt something eating away at her: doubt, such doubt.

 

“We are paid for our suspicions by finding what we suspected.”

-Henry David Thoreau

 

“My guiding principle is this: Guilt is never to be doubted.”

-Franz Kafka

 

 

 

The film boasts an amazing ensemble cast, albeit a small one by the standards of a Hollywood major motion picture, that includes Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn, Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius, Amy Adams as Sister James, and Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller. Every member of the cast is extraordinary.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, as always, delivers a wonderfully understated performance which never once attempts to reveal his character as being either guilty or innocent, but suggests that he does have a secret that haunts him, though we never learn what exactly that secret is.

Meryl Streep is also terrific playing Sister Aloysius, at first playing her like a stereotypical authoritarian nun and then as the film progresses subverting audience expectations by revealing that she is a deeply caring person though her methods are harsh and her judgment premature.

Amy Adams doesn’t really stretch herself that much playing Sister James since she has primarily played young, naïve, and starry-eyed characters so far in her career. However, she does get to show how the extremes of those characteristics here without going over the top and while performing scenes of great emotional intensity.

Viola Davis is stunningly believable as Mrs. Miller, Donald’s desperate mother, and her role may very well be the most polarizing in the film because of her character’s reaction to the news that her son may have been abused. Her performance, which couldn’t be further away from glamorous, feels almost too realistic for what is basically a melodrama, but this is a very minor quibble.

 

The film, just as the play, is ultimately ambiguous in that it plants all sorts of ideas about the characters and the events in our minds but never reveals the final truth. Because of this and because of the fact that there is a universal conflict between the Left and the Right, the male and the female, and the black and the white, audience members have applied their own beliefs and theories to the plot. There are those who see the story as a parable about the sexism within the church and the way that priests have luxuries and privileges that nuns don’t have, while others see it as being a straight-forward battle between two different kinds of idealists, and others still, who believe that the real message is about the dangers of prejudice and dogma. Whether you think you know the whole story or not, you don’t because there is no whole story, no absolute truth, no single solitary answer to explain it all. That may prove to be frustrating for some, but deeply rewarding for those viewers who don’t want to have a story dictated to them.

The film, just as was the case with the stage play, works best when you see it for the first time with a group of people and after the film’s over, you realize that everyone has a different opinion as to what they just saw. There will be those who immediately take sides with one character or the ideal that they represent, while there will also be those who choose not to take sides and instead acknowledge the flaws of all the characters, and there will be those who cast judgment based upon their own life experiences and how those life experiences have shaped their world view. This is what makes Doubt, without a doubt, so special.

 

“Prejudice: a vagrant opinion without visible means of support.”

-Ambrose Bierce

 

“I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.”

-Diogenes

Doubt DVD cover Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius Amy Adams as Sister James Sister Aloysius and Sister James Father Flynn and Sister James

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May 03, 2010
Another great review man
May 03, 2010
Thanks. Have you seen this one yet?
 
August 01, 2009
Amazing Review!  This is a film that i missed, but really wanted to see.  The previews for it made the movie seem very deep and very well acted.  This might be something I watch this weekend as I am a big fan of Hoffman and Streep.  Did you know that in your reviews you can embed media like video and pictures?  Thought that might be something you would be interested in!  Thanks for reminding me about this movie! 
August 04, 2009
Thanks, Husher315, it's good to have you weigh in on one of my reviews despite our frequent tendency to disagree on films. As for Hoffman and Streep, you can expect great performances from both in this one. Regarding uploading various media elements to the reviews, I tend to limit that to photos and usually save them for "big" films (big budget spectacle films and genre-specific films) rather than character-driven films like this. And especially with a film like this, it's probably best that people don't have preconceived ideas about the characters based upon photos. Anyway, thanks for the feedback and don't be a stranger, man. : )
 
July 26, 2009
saw this several months ago, and this is the perfect example of awesome performances that carried its otherwise simple premise. The direction was also nicely executed. I liked the fact it didn't reveal the answer and left us with a question. Philip Seymnour Hoffman rules!!
July 27, 2009
Total agreement. Hoffman is the man! I really hope that he ends up playing The Penguin. No one else can do it in my mind!
July 28, 2009
I think Cris Kattan also wants the part LOL!
July 28, 2009
The dumb, skinny little comedian? Seriously? Surely, I must have missed something...
 
July 25, 2009
I suppose I'll have to see this now because I can't fathom why an innocent man (especially a priest in the 1960s) would ever have allowed himself to be forced out by a nun if he were innocent. Its hard enough to oust a priest now.
July 27, 2009
Well, if you see the film and send me an e-mail, I'll be happy to expound upon my theories regarding that, but I don't want to go into it here and spoil the movie since it really, more than most movies, requires that you see it with as few expectations and preconceptions as possible.
July 27, 2009
I know what you mean. With some films like END OF THE LINE I didn't even want to give more of a plot summary then I did. I purposely left out everything about the religious cult. Of course now everyone else has spilled the beans so it no longer matters.
 
July 24, 2009
This review is amazing. Thanks for sharing!
July 27, 2009
Danke.
 
1
More Doubt reviews
review by . January 22, 2011
(some spoilers)      Doubt has the benefit of a great cast, an incredibly well-written story and good direction from the same man who wrote the play. It's definitely not one for everyone, especially those who need explosions and half-naked women to enjoy a movie. It is very dialogue-heavy, and before seeing this movie I had the benefit of reading the play. The movie definitely maintains faithfulness to the play and I am glad that Hollywood did not ruin the play. Every single …
review by . December 27, 2009
posted in Movie Hype
Pros: The camerawork and settings are pretty good      Cons: Weak story, weak characters, weak acting, poor pacing      The Bottom Line: I was ultimately bored.  There was nothing about the story or characters that indicated it was worth any mental/emotional investment.      Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie''s plot. To limit the risk of accidental plagiarism, I tend only to read reviews of the …
review by . April 13, 2009
posted in Movie Hype
teaser poster
Based on the award-winning play and adapted for the screen by John Patrick Shanley, who also directs this film, "DOUBT" is a riveting, powerful film full of raw emotional drama that registers as something truly worthy of praise. It has been made outstanding by the exceptional performances that would give you goose bumps and enough meat to talk about after the first viewing. It is just a film almost impossible to ignore with its superb direction, beautiful but simple cinematography--truly …
Quick Tip by . August 26, 2009
posted in Movie Hype
Unlike religion, I won't tell you what to believe. But I will tell you, without a doubt, that this movie is great, so go check it out!!!
review by . June 01, 2009
Ok, I admit that I had to be forced to watch this. The idea of priests, nuns and potential child abuse is a toxic mix of boredom that makes My Beautiful Launderette seem like a great night of entertainment. It's definitely not my sort of film, but I'll admit that it doesn't have any dragging scenes or slow moments at all, and ranks as one of the best dramas in a long time. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep (where do actors get their names?) turn in fine performances, …
review by . April 16, 2009
DOUBT is a riveting movie with a terrific cast. The story is set in a Catholic school in the mid-1960s, fixed in time by reference to the assassination of JFK. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the tough principal who has no time for the popular, progressive priest of the parish, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). When he preaches a sermon on doubt--the lack of moral clarity and how to find your way through it--she sees it as a personal statement of his guilt about something, and warns her nuns …
review by . December 26, 2008
I'll admit that the commercials for this movie didn't make it seem terribly worth seeing. In fact, most of my friends had no idea what I was talking about when I told them I saw this movie. But talk about an exciting drama that somehow leaves you with no solid answers! Despite that, Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman deliver a stunning performance that makes you forget you're in 2008. They take you back to the 1970s where a private Catholic school struggles with staying in the past, or advancing …
review by . May 25, 2009
posted in Movie Hype
Sorry, I'm going to be on the other side of this film, thinking it's not that great. To me it felt like a train wreck running in super slow motion. The story is a fairly well known story, there is no doubt about what will happen. Maybe the only glimmer of doubt I had was how explicit would the director be in describing what happened.     Details unfolded so slowly. This felt like a movies from the 20's or 30's or a Victorian novel, where there was a different viewer dynamic; …
review by . February 08, 2009
Short Attention Span Summary (SASS):     1. Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) is the iron-fisted Principal of a Catholic school in the Bronx   2. A sermon by Catholic priest Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) causes her to voice some concerns   3. Young Sister James (Amy Adams) notices that Father Flynn is paying special attention to a male student from a minority group   4. She voices her concerns to Sister Aloysius, who believes her concerns …
review by . May 08, 2009
Religion is built on faith. By definition, it must be, for it cannot prove its claims and most of what we know about science refutes most of what's said by religion.    It is using faith that Sister Alloyicious (Meryl Streep), bases her entire case against a charasmatic new priest (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). He's the embodiment of Vatican 2, and she's... well, probably Mel Gibson's grandmother.    The priest is doing things like giving sermons in English, that …
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It's always a risk when writers direct their own work, since some playwrights don't travel well from stage to screen. Aided by Roger Deakins, ofNo Country for Old Menfame, who vividly captures the look of a blustery Bronx winter,Moonstruck's John Patrick Shanley pulls it off. IfDoubtmakes for a dialogue-heavy experience, likeThe Crucibleand12 Angry Men, the words and ideas are never dull, and a consummate cast makes each one count. Set in 1964 and loosely inspired by actual events, Shanley focuses on St. Nicholas, a Catholic primary school that has accepted its first African-American student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), who serves as altar boy to the warm-hearted Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Donald may not have any friends, but that doesn't worry his mother, Mrs. Miller (Viola Davis in a scene-stealing performance), since her sole concern is that her son gets a good education. When Sister James (Amy Adams) notices Flynn concentrating more of his attentions on Miller than the other boys, she mentions the matter to Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the school's hard-nosed principal. Looking for any excuse to push the progressive priest out of her tradition-minded institution, Sister Aloysius sets out to destroy him, and if that means ruining Donald's future in the process--so be it. Naturally, she's the least sympathetic combatant in this battle, but Streep invests her disciplinarian with wit and unexpected flashes of empathy. Of...
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Details

Genre: Drama, Gay & Lesbian
Release Date: 2008
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Screen Writer: John Patrick Shanley
DVD Release Date: April 07, 2009
Runtime: 1hr 44min
Studio: Miramax
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