With every review I read of Doubt, I get the nagging feeling that I’ve seen a different film. It’s certain that I’ve had a different experience. Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s screen adaptation of his own play and the first film he has directed since Joe Versus the Volcano, continues to rumble through my mind because the ideas and conflicts left unresolved in the film. This is Shanley’s witch hunt play, his Crucible, with a very specifically American setting and the reverberations it carries. I never saw the stage production of John Patrick Shanley’s original play in any incarnation, let alone the Broadway run, and though I keep hearing the familiar chorus “It worked better on stage,” I wonder of having seen the stage play is preventing viewers from actually seeing the film.
While the cinema can be used effectively to express ambiguity, it is also a medium of concrete imagery and particular sense of certainty: it’s a mystery until the reveal, where we have the privileged view of seeing what happened, or at least seeing the evidence left behind and being provided an explanation that answers all questions. There is no such certainty in Doubt. It’s not Rashomon (everyone lies), it’s not Les Girls (everyone tells the truth in their own way, as Sarris so lovingly put it), and it’s certainly not The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris’ brilliant documentary that “recreates” various testimonies to illustrate how great minor discrepancies can be. There are no conflicting witnesses here, there is no forensic evidence to sift, there isn’t an accusing victim, merely the suspicion of a criminal act and one person’s drive for justice (or at the very least protective action) in a system that (as we all know too well given recent revelations) is more concerned with self-preservation than self-policing.
Set in the church and Catholic school of a largely Irish and Italian neighborhood of the Bronx in 1964, the film embraces so much â€“ racism and integration, the tensions between the old Catholic traditions and the modernization of the church and its public outreach in the sixties, the acts of pedophilia perpetrated by priests and covered up by the church, hypocrisy, faith, power, morality â€“ without lecturing or hectoring, placing it all within the very human struggle of fallible people doing what they think is right. Or at least that’s what we hope. The crux is, no surprise, in the title. Sunny, optimistic idealist Sister James (Amy Adams), a young nun teaching history to junior high boys and girls, witnesses what is at best circumstantial evidence of an improper relationship between the friendly and warm Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the well liked priest whose sermons bring religion to earth, and the school’s first African-American student, the brunt of student bullying. Flynn has extended his protection and support to the boy, but the imperious Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the authoritarian principal who fulfills every stereotype of the officious Catholic school who wraps the knuckles of distracted boys, suspects something more. Or is it that she just doesn’t like Flynn, whose new ways collide with her strict standards? “You don’t have any proof,” Father Flynn says to her when she vows to see him removed from the parish. “I have my certainty,” she replies. Belief without proof. Faith, in other words. She has no room for doubt. We aren’t so privileged.