After two and a half weeks of just total stress and craziness, I’m finally on Winter Break (hurray!). To celebrate the winding down of the semester, Rachael and I have been catching up on movies that we’ve been meaning to see, and one of the ones that we picked up two weeks ago was a film from 2008 called Doubt. It was on one of the staff recommendation shelves at our local video store, and since we quite enjoyed most of the other movies on that same shelf, we decided that we were going to give Doubt a shot.
We were not disappointed.
I mean, I’m not kidding when I say that we were so impressed with this movie that we watched it, considered rewatching it the same week, and then when it was time to return our movies, we decided to rent it again.
I haven’t watched a movie so intently (or so often) in years. If you’re at all interested in a really compelling character drama, then you should watch this movie.
The plot revolves around the principal of a Catholic school in New York in 1964, Sister Aloysius Beauvier, and a new priest to her parish, Father Flynn. Father Flynn is a progressive who’s looking to help the parish modernize and resume a vital role in the community, while Sister Aloysius is more conservative in her views of how the church should interact with the community, especially in relation to the students at her school. When it comes to Sister Aloysius’s attention that Father Flynn is cultivating a close relationship with the school’s first black student, Donald Miller, she becomes suspicious of him and begins pursuing evidence to prove that Father Flynn is molesting the boy.
The entire film revolves around Sister Aloysius’s attempts to prove the inappropriate relationship, but through the entire arc, no concrete evidence ever emerges. The best Sister Aloysius can come up with is bluffing Father Flynn into requesting a transfer after she claims that she’s discovered something shady about why he left his last couple of parishes. It’s never clear if Father Flynn chooses to leave because he fears Sister Aloysius has hit on something shameful about his past (given the time period, it’s possible the shameful thing may simply be that Father Flynn is homosexual–a possibility that’s only raised through the most oblique implications), and it’s certainly never revealed if he actually is a child molester. Nonetheless, Sister Aloysius wins the battle, although we learn in the end that Father Flynn has been promoted to pastor at a new parish, so if he is guilty of any wrongdoing, he’s not brought to justice.
The central point of the film is to explore the difficulties in being certain of something without having the capability to obtain hard evidence in favor or against one’s position. Sister Aloysius, who is convinced from early on that Father Flynn’s motivations are untoward, is largely powerless to enact an effective investigation of her suspicions without upending the lives of both the student whom she believes is at risk and jeopardizing her own position within the church. It’s a complication brought on by the hierarchical system of the Catholic Church where Sister Aloysius, despite her extensive experience as an educator, is in an inferior position to the newcomer Father Flynn because he is a priest and she’s a nun. Sister Aloysius’s attempts to investigate all get foiled as she inadvertently causes Donald to lose his position as an altar boy because it comes to light that he drank altar wine (without any evidence that the wine was given to the boy by the priest, nothing else can be done, and Father Flynn has a plausible alibi for a private meeting he had with the boy).
It’s an unfair situation, since the priest has every protection while Sister Aloysius and the boy are constantly at risk of losing their positions if she pushes too hard.
Complicating the entire matter further is the fact that besides Father Flynn’s possible abuse of the child, he is portrayed as a sympathetic character who is satisfied with his work and earnestly wants to help the members of his parish. Sister Aloysius, by contrast, is a hard-line disciplinarian who plays the part of the villain for her students (being an educator, I actually think that aspect of her character is pretty awesome) and an old-fashioned Catholic who disapproves of mixing things like secular Christmas songs into the school’s Christmas pageant and bemoans the end of penmanship (ballpoint pens are the scourge of the earth, apparently). Father Flynn is portrayed as such a good priest that the audience (and our surrogate, the younger Sister James) is torn between believing that he might be doing something monstrous and wanting to assume someone who does so much good for his community couldn’t possibly be hurting a child.
Either way, the point of the film is only on its surface telling the story of a concerned woman trying to protect a child from an abuser. The first time I watched it, I felt pretty confident all along that Father Flynn was abusing the boy, mostly because of how evasive he is in answering Sister Aloysius’s questions. I’ve had to go through a substantial amount of ethical training on what’s appropriate behavior for an educator with a student, and Father Flynn’s familiarity with Donald raises my hackles as something I’d never want to do with one of my students. The suggestion of impropriety is often more damning than any actual impropriety between an adult and a child. On my second viewing, I took a more careful look at Father Flynn’s actions, and I confirmed that while I think the things he does don’t look very good, he doesn’t actually engage in any behavior that definitively points towards his culpability. It’s the mark of either a very skilled predator or an innocent man. Of course, discerning which Father Flynn is, as far as I can tell, pretty much impossible.