When the system breaks down

Guess what I don’t have doubts about!! Oh I think you guessed it, smarty!

doubtposter082So there are movies and there are movies. And there are Meryl Streep movies. Guys, can she deliver a bad performance? Negative. There are a hundred reasons why you should see Doubt, adapted from John Patrick Shanley‘s play of the same name (Shanley adapted it for the screen and directed it himself), but Meryl is the first reason. She plays a nun, Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the principal of a Catholic school in an unspecified Northern city in the late Sixties, and I can guarantee you that you’ve never seen her play a part like this before. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the gregarious, forward-thinking Father Flynn, whose ideas of how a school should run contrast sharply with those of Sister Aloysius, who it’s hard to believe ever had the doubts that the film right from the get-go wants to address. He’d like to show a little more loving tenderness towards the kids, and Sister Aloysius analyzes that tenderness with suspicion, fueled by the nervous observations of Sister James (Amy Adams) who fervently just wants to do what will convince her internally that things are right.

And that’s what the movie is about, as you might have guessed, doubt. Not just doubting your faith, but doubting your own sense of certainty, of right and wrong, and of the intentions of the people who make up your world. It’s for this reason that we never get any hard and fast answers as to just what happens between Father Flynn and the boy Sister Aloysius suspects him of mistreating — we’re supposed to analyze our own suspicions, why we have them and if they are cemented in clear facts. Shanley’s play was a huge hit, but it’s hard for me to imagine what devices it used to express the doubts with which Shanley is concerned. In the film, facial expressions are the doubt language. Sister James has doubts that the behavior she has witnessed means the things Father Flynn insists it means, but she also has doubts that the people she reveres are capable of faltering — that anyone could desire anything but pleasing God and performing their duties. Father Flynn doubts the wisdom of the conventional Catholic school system and the prevalence of tradition, and Sister Aloysius…well, you’ll see. She has doubts. Oh yes she does.

But most importantly, it’s the viewer who has to analyze his or her doubts. All of my discussions with other folks who have seen this film centered around a certain key question: “So, what did you think really happened?” But that’s the beauty, we don’t know and we never can know. We don’t have anything more to go on than the nuns in the story, so we’re meant to pay close attention to the motivations behind our doubts so that we can in turn formulate doubts about our own motivations. It’s confusing, it’s unsettling, but it’s brilliantly done. If one person says one thing and another person says another, what more can you go on when there’s very little evidence. Your gut reactions? The gut reactions of your colleagues? At a certain point, what else is there? Which of these reactions is enough to put into motion dire consequences that, as Father Flynn says, direct the wind behind a person’s back to blow them in another direction? At a certain point, the question of what really happened pales feebly in comparison to these other questions.

I don’t know how Meryl does it. Or PSH or Amy Adams or Viola Davis (who plays the mother of the child who is suspected of having been abused), for that matter. People always say it’s something about the eyes, but I think it’s more likely the mouth. Watching Sister Aloysius’s tightly set lips waver in a moment of weakness is almost a religious experience in itself, as is Sister James attempting to purse her mouth into a picture of determination while she internally searches for that inner certainty she’s so used to easily locating. As Father Flynn sermonizes at the beginning of the film, which plays out the beginning of a church service (and henceforth fills me at least with a knee-jerk mixture of anxiety and the memory of childhood comfort), doubt can be a unifying bond that brings us all together. You’ll need to see it to believe the powerful relevance these three characters carry and to take a sort of haunting comfort in the fact that even the most stalwart of us isn’t quite as certain as she seems.

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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