Based on the trailer for writer/director John Patrick Shanley’s recent film, I expected Doubt to be a predictable cheap shot at the Catholic priesthood. Since the sexual abuse scandals of recent memory, it has been far too easy for filmmakers and media outlets to demonize the clergy. Because Doubt deals directly with the topic of clerical sexual abuse, I pegged this movie as more of the same.
I was surprised and relieved to find that Shanley presents a fair and nuanced portrait of the American Catholic Church in the 1960s and of the issues involved in accusing someone of such a serious offense. Doubt achieves a difficult balance, being simultaneously respectful of authority and critical of those who abuse their authority.
The story takes place at St. Nicholas Catholic parish and parochial school in New York City in 1964. Sister Aloysius is the principal of the school, and she is a rigid disciplinarian. Father Flynn, the parish pastor, takes a more casual approach to ministry, befriending students and preaching compassionate homilies. These two adversaries are brought to life by Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose skillful portrayals constitute the film’s most outstanding artistic achievement.
From the beginning, Sr. Aloysius obviously dislikes Fr. Flynn’s personality and methods, and she eventually grows to suspect him of an illicit relationship with one of the male students. The initially simplistic personalities of both characters acquire impressive complexity throughout the film as we see strict Sr. Aloysius tenderly caring for her elderly sisters and grow to wonder whether Fr. Flynn is in fact guilty.
Doubt is based on a stage play written by Shanley himself, who also adapted it for the screen. The play is the source of the film’s intelligent writing, but this also seems to be a cinematic drawback. The confined setting and abundance of dialogue give the film a bit of a stagy feel, although Shanley works well with what he has. I encourage all adults to see Doubt, but would only recommend it to mature young people because of the difficulty of the subject matter.