Scandals surrounding pedophilia and sexual abuse amongst priest and students is nothing new or outlandish. Unfortunately, this sort of thing happens frequently, perhaps more frequently than we even know about. John Patrick Shanely’s film, Doubt, based on his award winning play, examines the behind the scenes turmoil in a small church when confronted with this issue. This is a thickly layered film that will leave you guessing up until the very end and will leave you thinking long after it’s over.
Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the extremely conservative, old fashioned, and strict principal at the St. Nicholas Church School located in the Bronx, who is very upset at the more progressive behavior of the new pastor, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). When the mild mannered Sister James (Amy Adams) suspects him of engaging in an inappropriate relationship with the school’s only black student, Sister Aloysius starts her own personal crusade to remove Father Flynn from the parish, thereby tarnishing his popular reputation, despite lack of evidence.
I wouldn’t be surprised if more casual film viewers would complain that nothing happens in this movie. I could easily see where they are coming from, but would argue that a lot is going on beneath the surface of the film, and it’s more about the quiet battles that occur more so than the more overt actions. There is loads of dialogue in this film, with conversations that seem to last a life time, but they are so covertly emotional and harsh that if you aren’t listening closely you may miss the next move in the verbal game of chess that Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn seem to be locked in.
One of the greatest things about this film is that it’s easy to forget that everyone on the screen are just actors. The performances are done so flawlessly and with such effort and conviction. Meryl Streep is and Philip Seymour Hoffman are both renowned actors who have proved their skill in the past and are back with all of their acting guns blazing. Who I think is the scene stealer in Doubt, however, is Amy Adams. Sure, she may not have scenes that are as powerful and intense as the previous two actors, but every time she was on screen, I couldn’t help but smile at her character. Sister James is just as innocent as the children and is in way over her head.
The themes in this film go beyond that of sexual abuse in the Church. The film also explores change and the inability for certain people or institutions to be able to progress along with everyone else. The film takes place around the time of Vatican II, which was a very important and stressful time in the Catholic Church where change was demanded. Another theme explored in Doubt is that of, well, doubt and how it forces you to examine your own morality and points of view.
This film really hits close to home for me. I spent most of my life in the school district of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. As of right now there is a huge scandal happening concerning sexual abuse towards children. This has been going on for a long time now and really makes this film seem less like fiction. On a lighter note, the scary nuns of my past were brought back through Sister Aloysius.
Doubt is a deeply powerful film. It was nominated for 5 Academy Awards, but sadly did not win any. It’s a powerhouse of a movie that is strengthened through its outstanding performances and scenery. Even if you are not religious, this is a great film to see. It strangely works as both a moral drama and thriller at the same time. One review I read actually said, “This film is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.” I would have to agree.