Written & Directed by John Patrick Shanley
Meryl Streep dominates this movie, and her entrance is such a fantastic one. In the middle of Father Flynn’s (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) sermon about doubt, the camera follows a black shrouded figure walking along the pews. This is Sister Aloysius (Streep) looming over the children in attendance, intent on bringing down her hammer on any one of them who shows slight disdain for being in church. I wouldn’t say Aloysius is a villain, but she is most certainly the antagonist in the picture, on her fervent crusade to flush out what she sees as wrong-doing in a place she believes is her church.
The suspicions are aroused over Flynn’s relationship with Donald, a young black student who attends the school connected to the church. Donald is the first non-white student to come to this school, and Flynn appears to just want to make sure the boy feels at home. Sister James (Amy Adams) witnesses Flynn putting an undershirt in Donald’s locker as well as having the boy sent to the rectory for a private meeting during class. James shares these details with Aloysius, but it is clear the senior sister already has resentment towards the Father, and this is merely fuel to escalate.
The film intentionally never lays it all out on the table so that it can cultivate that titular doubt within us. Aloysius even admits at one point that she has no evidence to accuse Flynn of having an inappropriate relationship with Donald, but she has her “certainty.” Flynn’s opening sermon felt incredibly resonant with our current state of affairs with COVID-19, almost a speech being given a year from now. Flynn talks about the congregation’s grief over the death of President Kennedy the previous year and how it created bonds between this shared trauma. He talks about both the positive and negative experiences that can forge relationships between people the film goes on to show all sides of this.
Aloysius tries to make a bond with James over ferreting out the truth about Flynn. She also visits James’s classroom and tries to guide her down a more strict and punitive model of teaching. Aloysius’s whole world view is based around the idea that external forces are always trying to break down the order people like her shape the world into. James has taken down a picture of a previous pope, and Aloysius puts it back up under the auspices of using it to see what the children are doing behind you. It should be noted that this was smack dab in the middle of Vatican II, a significant reformation of the Catholic Church. This event heralded an overhaul of doctrinal teachings, rites, and philosophical points that had been relatively cemented for centuries. People like Aloysius would see this as an affront to order while Flynn welcomes the changes.
The film also touches on elements of gender within the Church. A very telling scene shows Flynn and a couple of other male members of the clergy sharing dinner, telling bawdy jokes, and generally having a fantastic time. We cut to the nuns, and they sit in silence, waiting for the housekeeper to dole out their meal and Aloysius to signal that they are allowed to eat. Aloysius seems hyper-aware of the gender bias that exists and makes comments that male clergy always protect each other, implying that you have to speak with fellow nuns to get the truth of what is happening. The conflict between Flynn and the sister is much more about a clash of genders and their roles in the hegemonic structure of the Catholic Church. Flynn is freer to push for progressivism, while someone like Aloysius will always have to be subservient to the male clergy.
It becomes relatively clear by the end of the movie what is actually going on between Flynn and Donald, so spoilers if you keep reading. Flynn is gay, and he has realized that Donald is, as well. Donald’s mother confirms this when she tells Aloysius that the boy’s father wants to kill him because of his “nature.” Flynn is counseling Donald and acting as a mentor. Does he cross the line? Likely so. But Flynn is trapped because if he is honest with Aloysius, she will likely report him, and if his sexuality becomes public, then he’s kicked out of the Church. There is a beautiful example of how Flynn isn’t exercising the sort of restraint he wishes the sister had. Early in the film, we learn that one of the elderly nuns is losing her eyesight, and Aloysius covers up for her because, if the Church were to find out, she would be moved from the school to some distant convent. Flynn suspects that this nun is going blind and briefly questions Aloysius about who covers for her colleague. Once again, that gender divide comes into play, emphasizing how power is divided up within the Church.
Doubt isn’t the showiest of movies, it is dialogue-heavy. That makes sense because it is based on a stage play and writer-director John Patrick Shanley doesn’t necessarily adapt his work for film in any sort of heightened manner. Cinematographer Roger Deakins provides a few strong visuals, but his talents, for the most part, are wasted, though the film does look very rich and deep. It’s the acting that is center stage here, primarily Streep and Hoffman’s powerful performances. Streep is absolutely stunning as an antagonistic character, and I wish she played more of those roles. This is an example of a performance-centered masterpiece.