The film Doubt, set in the Bronx in 1964, is the story of a Catholic priest, Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the pastor of St. Nicholas parish, and a nun, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), principal of the parish school. Sister Aloysius believes that Father Flynn has sexually molested a young black student from the school; the priest vehemently proclaims his innocence, but his protestations do nothing to move the nun from her certainty. In the end, Father Flynn is transferred to another parish, where he is also the pastor.
The film is based on Shanley’s award-winning Broadway play Doubt: A Parable.
After seeing Shanley’s play, many people wanted him to reveal whether Father Flynn was guilty of what Sister Aloysius was accusing him. Audience members would come out at the end of the performance with wildly opposing opinions, like “Well, he is obviously guilty” or “Come on, there is no way he is guilty. The nun is just jealous of his power.” While he knew the answer to the question, Shanley only ever told the actors playing Father Flynn whether or not their character was guilty.
The play—and the movie—is not about child molestation, it is not about guilt or innocence, it is not about the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s, it is not a mystery story. Nor is it a “theological drama,” as the CBC called it. Doubt is about doubt. When Shanley wrote the play, he had already been thinking about the issues of doubt and certainty for some time. Much of the motivation for writing the play arose from the invasion of Iraq and the seemingly intransigent views of both sides of the issue. Emotions were running high after 9/11 and there were those who were absolutely certain that there were WMD’s in Iraq despite credible claims to the contrary; they were convinced beyond any doubt that invading the country was the right thing to do. The naysayers were unpatriotic and posed a threat to the security of the United States. Observing all of this, the playwright began to wonder about the ability of men to step back from their emotions—because for Shanley, doubt is an emotion—and look at the issue in all its complexity and uncertainty. In a March 2004 interview with Charlie Rose, he says the following:
I think that art describes the vacuum. Art describes what isn’t there, the thing that needs to be said, the missing element of the current dialogue that’s going on in the world. And for me, the thing that was missing in the society that I’m living in now was the ability for strong men to say, “Gee. I don’t know. I don’t know what the answer to that is. I’m going to have to sit here for a while and contemplate that and talk that over with you.”
And this from an interview in 2008, when the movie was released:
Charlie Rose: And you want all of us…to come away with some sense that…there’s danger in believing that…you’re always right, or coming to some place that makes you think you have to say that.
Shanley: I want the audience to walk in, feel comfortable, have their assumptions working and working very well in confirming for instance what nuns are like or what black mothers are like, and I want their assumptions to be overturned, to not be sufficient to carry them through the story and then to have to go, “You know what? I have to rethink this. I have to look at this person with new eyes.” And maybe have it happen so often in the course of this story that by the time they walk out of the theatre they start to look at maybe other people that they will talk to after the film with new eyes and make a little more room to hear what other people are saying rather than fill in so much about who that person is.
The back-and-forth between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn, in which neither is listening to the other in any sense, reflects Shanley’s belief that this lack of honest dialogue is a symptom of the dysfunction of our society at this time in history. Society has become polarized on most issues, especially in the political arena, and neither side is willing to move even slightly off its position. He hopes that the film will help people to see that there is an urgent need for all of us to return to reasoned discourse, in which one side does not believe it has a monopoly on Truth.
I saw both the play—at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Theatre in Vancouver— and the film. While I enjoyed the play very much, I preferred the movie, both because of the calibre of the acting and because the movie provides a much more satisfying context for the story. John Patrick Shanley and Charlie Rose again:
Charlie Rose: For those who saw the play and wonder how the movie could be different, what would you tell them?
Shanley: I think you see now the story in a larger context of what the community was like that fed this situation, and you get to see what the clergy…how they lived in private and the differences in the way that the men and women of the clergy were treated. And you get to see the children and the struggle over the children and the boy in question in particular, and I think that adds an enormous emotional power to it and stakes for the actors to play.
John Patrick Shanley grew up in the Bronx in the 1960s, among families of Italian and Irish descent. He attended Catholic school and was taught by nuns, members of the order of the Sisters of Charity. In 1964, teachers in Catholic schools passed on a “code of beliefs” to their students, and “there really was no questioning of these beliefs.” But this time and this place and the characters in the film are for Shanley merely the specificity he needs to present the larger issue at work in the play and in the film. And the larger issue is this:
We can never know what’s inside the heart or soul of another human being. We can have our assumptions or our theories; sometimes they may be very solid, but we can never know. An adult has to learn to live with that, to live with doubt as a natural part of the equation of life, to never give it up and to recognize that it’s an asset to leave a place in yourself open for further discussion, for further thought, for further conclusions.
My boy came to your school ‘cause they were gonna kill him in the public school. His father don’t like ‘im. He come to your school, kids don’ like ‘im. One man is good to him—this priest. And does the man have his reasons? Yes. Everybody does. You have your reasons, but do I ask the man why he’s good to my son? No. I don’t care why! My son needs some man to care about him and to see him through the way he wants to go, and thank God this educated man with some kindness in him wants to do just that.
Because she knows that her husband may very well kill her son, she is willing to overlook what may be sexual abuse by the priest in order to gain even a small amount of ground in the battle to protect him. Sister Aloysius is at first shocked by this and asks Mrs. Muller, “What kind of mother are you?” But the woman’s powerful love for her son and her instinct to protect him soon defeats Sister Aloysius, and she retreats. The tilted camera angle as she walks down the school hallway in one of the following scenes shows that the nun’s certainty has, for the moment at least, been shaken.
The purpose of this scene is not to condone sexual abuse by priests. Mrs. Muller knows very well that what Father Flynn may be doing with her son is wrong. It shows us rather that the moral absolutism professed by Sister Aloysius is inconsequential, even ridiculous, as a factor in the daily struggles of the lives of ordinary people. That message is what the moral absolutists of institutional religion need to derive from this scene and from this film.
So we leave the last word to John Patrick Shanley, who says of this brilliant film:
Of course that character that’s always in the room and that you never see is doubt itself. Who do I believe? What is the truth of this moment or that moment? Will I ever be able to judge these people? Will I ever be able to put this to rest, with a verdict? But of course, life isn’t like that. We can never know what’s inside the heart or soul of another human being. We can have our assumptions or our theories; sometimes they may be very solid, but we can never know. An adult has to learn to live with that, to live with doubt as a natural part of the equation of life, to never give it up and to recognize that it’s an asset to leave a place in yourself open for further discussion, for further thought, for further conclusions.