Uncertain Sympathies: John Patrick Shanley's 'Doubt'

The sun does not shine much in the Bronx neighborhood where John Patrick Shanley’s powerful film, Doubt, is set. The atmosphere is gray and cold; its melancholy mood is disturbed only once in the film by a fierce windstorm that blows down many of the bare limbs of the convent trees. The winds of change are blowing in the Catholic Church in 1964, and Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the principal of the St. Nicholas parish school, seems determined to protect her domain from any corrupting influences in the air.Catholics of a certain age might be tempted toward nostalgia by the film’s opening shots, showing a quiet Sunday morning in this Irish-American neighborhood. The altar boys prepare the cruets of water and wine and negotiate which one of them will light the charcoal for the incense and which will ring the altar chimes for this pre-Vatican II Sunday Mass. The working-class parishioners, smartly dressed, with the women wearing the prescribed head-coverings, gently greet each other as they walk to church. Maybe Sister Aloysius has a point. Catholic life seemed simpler and more reliable then, with none of the questions and changes that the Second Vatican Council and all the other forces of the 1960s would bring to the church.

But things are not as solid and certain as they seem. The first hint comes from a sermon given by a young priest, Father Brendan Flynn: “What do you do when you’re not sure?” he asks the congregation. He reminds them of the bond of despair and uncertainty they shared a year earlier, when their beloved president John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He compares this, however, to a lonelier situation, offering as a parable the story of a sailor alone on a lifeboat who cannot see the stars to guide him. The priest proposes this as an image of the loneliness many in the congregation might feel because of some secret fear or pain in their lives that no one knows about. He suggests someone might be thinking, “No one knows that I’ve done something wrong.”


Before long, Sister Aloysius suspects that someone has been doing something wrong: Father Flynn himself. She already clearly has a fundamental distrust of the young assistant pastor. He is too jovial for her tastes; he suggests that the school Christmas play should include a secular song like “Frosty the Snowman,” which Sister Aloysius considers a heretical message about magic. As for his personal habits, he likes too much sugar in his tea, wears his fingernails too long, uses a ballpoint pen and possesses other hints of sensuality and adaptation to the modern world.

Father Flynn harbors a similar disapproval of Sister Aloysius’ strict attitudes and demeanor, which he considers to be holding the school and the parish back from the newer vision of “a welcoming church.” Sister Aloysius is more than ready to suspect him when a naïve young nun suggests that he might be engaging in an inappropriate relationship with one of the eighth-grade boys. Sister Aloysius determines to get to the truth of this matter, while Father Flynn responds to her accusations with ferocious self-right-eousness.

To tell here how the question is resolved would be more than a disservice to our readers, because as the story develops, the audience learns that there is much more than the possibility of sexual scandal lurking in the world of St. Nicholas Parish. Shanley’s screenplay reveals layers of evil that reach to a heart of darkness worthy of Joseph Conrad or Graham Greene. Sister Aloysius has her own demons, many of which are revealed in the several scenes that Shanley has added to his Broadway script, not only “opening up” the setting but providing opportunities to see both Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn interact with other members of their community. While the original play was set in only three locations—the parish church, Sister Aloysius’ office and the convent cloister garden—and employed a cast of only four actors, the film makes excellent use of other locales and characters.

Sister Aloysius, for example, is shown tyrannizing the grade school children in the church, the classroom and the playground. When the young Sister James tells her that the students are “all uniformly terrified of you,” she responds, “Yes. That’s how it works.” With little respect for anyone’s agenda but her own, she invades Sister James’s classroom in the midst of a lesson, and she feels free to wander up and down the pews of the church to monitor children’s behavior during Father Flynn’s homily. She presides over the convent meals with a mixture of gloom and sarcasm. The nuns eat their dinner in silence until Sister Aloysius rings her bell and begins the conversation; when the other nuns speak, she counters their comments with ridicule. And she certainly disapproves of Father Flynn’s comfort with and affection for the students, especially Donald Muller, who, incidentally, is the first African-American student admitted into the school.

Meanwhile, Father Flynn’s behavior gives Sister Aloysius further motive to suspect him. He embraces Donald after he is bullied by another student; the priest is spotted mysteriously returning Donald’s undershirt to the boy’s locker; and he calls Donald out of a class for a private conversation in the rectory, after which the boy returns to the classroom with the smell of alcohol on his breath. Father has several of the boys over to the rectory for soft drinks and “shooting the breeze.” In one awkward scene, after a basketball practice, he encourages the boys to keep their fingernails clean and well manicured, letting them grow longer than Sister Aloysius would want. And, as Sister discovers, he has been assigned to three different parishes in the last five years.

The conflict between the priest and the nun, however, is more than personal; it signifies a more universal moral divide. When Sister James attempts to defend Father Flynn from any suspicion of misbehavior, Sister Aloysius responds, “You just want simplicity back.” There is something admirable in her relentless determination not to let the issue lie unresolved but to pursue the truth, to “do what needs to be done,” no matter how complicated or unpleasant the truth may be. On the other hand, Father Flynn analyzes Sister Aloysius’s search for “the truth” as a dangerous consequence of her generally joyless approach to life. As he tells Sister James: “There are people who go after your humanity…who tell you that the light in your heart is a weakness. Don’t believe it. It’s an old tactic of cruel people to kill kindness in the name of virtue.” The drama pulls us between our admiration of Sister Aloysius’s uncompromising search for the truth and Father Flynn’s promotion of tolerance and compassion, or, as he puts it, Christ’s message of “love. Not suspicion, disapproval and judgment.”

Yet another level of evil operative in the parish neighborhood is revealed when Sister Aloysius holds a private conference with Donald’s mother, who works as a cleaning woman in a nearby apartment complex. In one electrifying conversation, Mrs. Muller reveals other facts about the boy’s home life and his personal confusion as well as her own attitude toward the accusations, exposing some even darker truths about race, class and the desperate search for upward mobility that private education promises to inner-city children. All these revelations seem to take Sister Aloysius by surprise.

Finally, the film exposes a deeper layer of institutional injustice that may account for Sister Aloysius’ need to dominate the only realm under her control. As she remarks at one point, in the Catholic Church, “men run everything.” Even she must admit that in the church’s patriarchal system, Father Flynn is technically her superior. Her only recourse to any higher authority is to talk to the pastor, who, she is convinced, will side with Father Flynn. She is not allowed to appeal to the bishop of the archdiocese. Indeed, when Father Flynn later upbraids her for speaking to someone else about the matter, saying: “The church is very clear. You’re supposed to go through the pastor,” she responds: “Why? Do you have an understanding, you and he?” This portrayal of a clerical boys’ club, especially in the U.S. church of the 1960s, might be even easier for today’s film audiences to visualize after the many reports of official mishandling of sexual abuse cases among the clergy in recent years.

Not enough praise can be given to the performances of Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn. How much more evidence do we need of their versatility? Just last year, Hoffman appeared onscreen as a depressed but articulate English professor in “The Savages,” as a sleek executive-turned-murderer in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” and as a fast-talking alpha male C.I.A. agent in “Charlie Wilsons’ War.” His portrayal in “Doubt” of this likeable and eloquent young priest who may be hiding a secret draws on all of those characterizations to add complexity to the battle of wills in this drama. Ms. Streep has been even busier and more adventurous in the 10 films she has made in the last three years. While her recent roles have displayed a vast range of emotions, her portrayal of the conscientious and humorless Sister Aloysius requires instead a grim intensity and a willingness to forgo any audience sympathy or even approval. In every close-up and every debate with Hoffman or Amy Adams, as the innocent but ultimately confident Sister James, and particularly with Viola Davis (whose ten minutes on screen are a knockout) as Donald’s worldly-wise mother, Streep employs the subtlest of expressions and body language to create the most chilling effects.

Only a few of Broadway’s most acclaimed dramas in recent years (“Closer,” “Proof” and “The History Boys,” for example) have made it to the screen, and none was very successful in either financial or critical terms. “Doubt,” the Tony Award winner for Best Play in 2005, might well have been destined for the same fate. However, as both director and screenwriter, John Patrick Shanley may beat the odds this year with a film that is sure to garner many nominations and perhaps some awards at Oscar time. By expanding his narrative with more scenes and characters, Shanley demonstrates how a film can improve on a play’s psychological tensions. It can also deepen our awareness of the darkness to be encountered even within the most sacred locales of human faith and doubt.

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10 years 1 month ago
You had to have been there! It’s all about sitzen leben. . . Your take on "Doubt" and especially Sr Aloysius could have benefited greatly from some increased familiarity with Religious Life for women before the reforms of Vatican II and with the professional roles and interplay of elementary school teachers and principals. It was the custom in that era that convent meals were taken in silence. At each meal a Sister read from some spiritual tome for the edification of the group. The reader stopped when the bell was rung and the meal continued in silence. Evening meals in the convents I knew were the least palatable as the reading of Butler’s “Lives of the Saints” more often than not described in gory detail the travails and martyrdom of the saint (s) for the next day. Exceptions to these silent meals were feast days and holy days where after a period of silence the bell was rung and conversation was permitted. Pre-Vatican II religious regarded the bell as the vox Dei– whether it awakened them, summoned them to prayer, or signaled permission to speak. Sr. Aloysius maintains order in the school and in the convent in a manner quite familiar to those who experienced those settings in that time frame. Daily life in the convent was designed to be mindfully introspective, orderly and seriously religious. Sisters in some Congregations went from the chapel to the refectory for the morning, noon and evening meals reciting aloud the Magnificat, the Miserere, or the De Profundis respectively As for the monitoring of the students’ behavior during Mass, it was considered an integral part of the responsibility of the school staff and was an ordinary every day occurrence that would not have raised an eyebrow then. As a novice teacher, Sister James would have expected to be supervised by the principal at any time during the instructional day. In the film her character seems to take it quite naturally just as she would have in the reality of those times. The parochial school classroom, which in those days often held over 50 pupils, was dependent upon more than a modicum of order to facilitate an optimum learning environment. I remember as a new teacher being instructed by my mentor not to smile for the first two weeks to set the right tone In describing Ms Streep’s performance you speak of her portrayal of "the conscientious and humorless Sister Aloysius" that required "a grim intensity and a willingness to forgo audience sympathy or even approval". Did you not see the sensitive and deft manner in which Sr Aloysius aided the visually impaired elderly Sister? Did you not see how she protected the older sisters and fought to keep them in the mainstream of parish life? There are further sides to Sr Aloysius shown throughout the film, which reveal a more complex and tender personality. E.g., she’s the Principal and the Superior yet she amply shares and collaborates with Sister James. She’s a very traditional Religious of her time yet she is willing to deviate from her understanding of obedience when the welfare of her students and larger moral issues are at stake. In effect Sister Aloysius opts through her certainty, dedication and course of action to weaken the underpinnings of the system that has enabled her to be so sure. It is paradoxically through her certainty that she approaches the doubt about which Fr. Flynn preached.


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