MOVIE REVIEW | ‘DOUBT’
1. To be undecided or skeptical about.
2. To tend to disbelieve; distrust or suspect.
When our firmly held beliefs are called into question, we are often asked to present our skeptics with some degree of proof. In the field of law, this measure of proof must reach beyond a reasonable doubt. This legal standard is designed to cause any reasonable and prudent person to take pause in advance of condemning a defendant to time behind bars or worse. It is within this context of careful deliberation that the audience is asked to critically weigh all of the evidence – before passing judgment on Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays the role of the (suspected) pedophile priest, Father Flynn, in the film Doubt.
Adapted from John Patrick Shanley’s play, Doubt sets a bleak stage right from the movie’s opening scene. We get our cue that a tragedy is lurking in the surrounding grey skies and desolate streets inhabited by swirling dead leaves. A low angle shot of a church towers over the audience as the camera quietly ushers us in. Pushing past the congregation, we see Father Flynn at the podium poised to deliver his sermon. “What do you do when you’re not sure?” he asks. “Doubt,” he goes on to say, “can be as powerful and sustaining as certainty.”
When I was growing up, my father was a well-respected man – a pillar of the community – deacon of the church. Like Father Flynn, he was to be trusted. It was not uncommon for
parents to leave their children with my father from time-to-time – for our families to go on fishing and camping trips together. From my sisters’ point of view, this cache of favor he had with the community presented an enormous challenge. If they were to reveal that our father had molested them for years, whom could they tell? Who would believe them? Doubt.
Meryl Streep, as Sister Aloysius Beauvier, confronts Father Flynn and accuses him of having an “inappropriate” relationship with the only black student at an otherwise all white Catholic school. Her evidence against him is circumstantial – nothing that would ever hold up in court – certainly not against a “man of the cloth” (keep in mind the film takes place in the 1960s). Moreover, Sister Beauvier is not a charming soul, nor likeable and adored by the alter boys like Father Flynn. He always has sweets in his pocket, shiny objects to hand out and kind words to spare. Father Flynn shows the ostracized black student favor among his peers. By stark contrast, Sister Beauvier is stoic, a stickler for the rules and casts aspersions on others. It would be all too easy to suggest that Sister Beauvier’s claim stems from a clash of personalities – jealous of Father Flynn’s popularity among the students. And who would believe the black boy? Why would he tell when certain to be met with doubt? What if Father Flynn is telling the truth?
Child molestation is a taboo, because it is not supposed to happen, but in fact it does and by those we know and trust… so family members and people like priests are often implicated. But what does it mean to admit that someone we care deeply about and trust is capable of committing such an unspeakable crime? Who among us is prepared to accept that our friend, neighbor, colleague – family member or priest – is a pedophile? Accepting the truth of that reality is often contingent upon what is more convenient – or less problematic to believe. Proof.
As young girls, my sisters believed that the only way to prove my father’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, was to have him “caught in the act.” Sister Beauvier sought to elicit a confession from Father Flynn. Both standards of proof require detailed maneuvering and in no way guarantee the intended results. In fact, even a well-laid plan can backfire and have dire consequences for all. There is no happy ending.
For both men, their lives are restored: Father Flynn gets to relocate to another parish with greater prestige and responsibilities, while my father was able to rebuild his family – a new wife, two children, as well as seemingly “normal” father-daughter relationships with my sisters, their kids and grandchildren. And this is the part of the story that never gets told – not in Little Children, The Woodsman, Capturing the Friedmans, Deliver Us From Evil, or Doubt. In each of these films, what we find are victims and offenders – and once the crime is revealed, the two are forever torn apart; never to reunite in any congenial way. But this is not the case. Children, like my sisters and the black alter boy in Doubt, often find themselves caught in situations of captivity, where they are conditioned to have an attachment to their offenders. Moreover, they, like anyone else, long for a loving family and place to go for the holidays and those special occasions. Family, like religion, often shapes our identities, so it stands to reason that the very victims themselves would gravitate toward those things, too. The choice really comes down to whether it’s easier to live a life with or without family and faith – even if betrayed by them. For the victims, we can look at this choice as a form of reparations; a quest to reclaim what was taken from them by their offenders. This is not, however, an act of forgiveness. Forgiveness can only come after the offender has both acknowledged the harm of what has happened, expressed remorse, apologized and tried to make amends. But that rarely happens and for my sisters, as well as the end result in Doubt, there is no exception. There is another kind of forgiveness that is more of a unilateral act on the part of the victim-survivor; that is, to let go of the anger, resentment and grief because they no longer want to be tormented by it. In this sense, forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past.
Although Doubt does not capture all of the intricate details that make up the complex relationship between victims and offenders, there is no question that this is a deeply compelling story – delivered by a powerful cast.