The sun doesn’t shine much in the Bronx neighborhood where John Patrick Shanley’s powerful film, Doubt, is set. The atmosphere is gray and cold; its melancholy mood is disturbed only once in the film by a fierce wind storm that blows down many of the bare limbs of the convent trees. The winds of change are indeed blowing in the Catholic Church in 1964, and Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the principal of St. Nicholas parish school, seems determined to protect her domain from any corrupting influences that might be in the air.
Catholics of a certain age might be tempted toward nostalgia by the film’s opening shots, showing a quiet Sunday morning in this Irish-American neighborhood. The altar boys prepare the cruets of water and wine and negotiate which one of them will light the charcoal for the incense and which will ring the altar chimes for the consecration in this pre-Vatican II Sunday Mass. The working-class parishioners, nicely dressed, with the women all wearing the prescribed head-coverings, gently greet each other as they walk to church. Maybe Sister Aloysius has a point. Catholic life seemed simpler and more reliable then, with none of the questions and changes that the Vatican Council and all the other forces of the 1960s would bring to the Church.
But things are not quite as solid and certain as they seem. The first hint comes from the topic of the sermon given by the young priest, Father Brendan Flynn: “What do you do when you’re not sure?” he asks the congregation. He reminds them of the bond of despair and uncertainty they had all shared a year earlier when their beloved president John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He compares this, however, to a much lonelier situation, offering as a parable the story of a sailor alone on a lifeboat who cannot see the stars to guide him. He proposes this as an image of the loneliness many in the congregation might feel because of some secret fear or pain in their lives that no one knows about. For example, he suggests, someone might be thinking, “No one knows that I’ve done something wrong.”
Before long, Sister Aloysius suspects that indeed someone has been doing something wrong: Father Flynn himself. She already clearly has a fundamental distrust of the young assistant pastor. He is much too jovial for her tastes; he suggests that the school Christmas play should include a secular song like “Frosty the Snowman,” which Sister Aloysius considers a heretical message about magic; and, as for his personal habits, he likes too much sugar in his tea, he wears his fingernails too long, he uses a ball-point pen and possesses other hints of sensuality and adaptation to the modern world. Father Flynn harbors a similar disapproval of Sister Aloysius’s strict attitudes and demeanor, which he considers to be holding the school and the parish back from the newer vision of “a welcoming church.” Sister Aloysius is therefore more than ready to suspect him when a naïve young nun suggests that he might be engaging in an inappropriate relationship with one of the eighth-grade boys. Sister Aloysius determines to get to the truth of this matter, while Father Flynn responds to her accusations with ferocious self-righteousness.
To tell how the question is resolved would be more than a disservice, because as the story develops, the audience learns that there is much more than the possibility of sexual scandal lurking in the world of St. Nicholas parish. Shanley’s screenplay reveals layers of evil that reach to a heart of darkness worthy of Joseph Conrad or Graham Greene. Sister Aloysius has her own demons, many of which are revealed in the several scenes that Shanley has added to his Broadway script, not only “opening up” the setting but providing opportunities to see both Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn interact with other members of their community. While the original play was set in only three locations --the parish church, Sister Aloysius’s office, and the convent cloister garden--and employed a cast of only four actors, the film makes excellent use of other locales and characters. Sister Aloysius, for example, is shown tyrannizing the grade school children in the church, the classroom and the playground. When the young Sister James tells her that the students are “all uniformly terrified of you,” she responds, “Yes. That’s how it works.” With little respect for anyone’s agenda but her own, she invades Sister James’s classroom in the midst of a lesson and reprimands various students for their minor infractions, and she feels free to wander up and down the pews of the church to monitor children’s behavior during Father Flynn’s homily. She presides over the convent meals with a mixture of gloom and sarcasm. The nuns eat their dinner in silence until Sister Aloysius rings her bell and begins the conversation; when the other nuns speak, she counters their comments with ridicule. And she certainly disapproves of Father Flynn’s comfort with and affection for the students, especially Donald Muller, who incidentally is the first African-American student admitted into the school.
Meanwhile, Father Flynn behavior gives Sister Aloysius further motive to suspect him. He is shown embracing Donald after he is bullied by another student; he is spotted mysteriously returning Donald’s undershirt to his locker; and he calls Donald out of a class for a private conversation in the rectory, after which the boy returns to the classroom with the smell of alcohol on his breath. Father has several of the boys over to the rectory for soft drinks and “shooting the breeze.” And in one particularly awkward sequence, after a basketball practice, he encourages the boys to keep their fingernails clean and well-manicured, letting them grow longer than Sister Aloysius would want. And, as Sister discovers upon investigation, he has been assigned to three different parishes in the last five years.
The conflict between the priest and the nun, however, is more than personal; it signifies a more universal moral divide. When Sister James attempts to defend Father Flynn from any suspicion of misbehavior, Sister Aloysius responds, “You just want simplicity back.” There is indeed something admirable in her relentless determination not to let the issue lie unresolved but to pursue the truth, to “do what needs to be done,” no matter how complicated or unpleasant the truth may be. On the other hand, Father Flynn analyzes Sister Aloysius’s search for “the truth” as a dangerous consequence of her generally joyless approach to life. As he tells Sister James, “There are people who go after your humanity…who tell you that the light in your heart is a weakness. Don’t believe it. It’s an old tactic of cruel people to kill kindness in the name of virtue.” The drama pulls us between our admiration of Sister Aloysius’s uncompromising search for the truth and Father Flynn’s promotion of tolerance and compassion, or, as he puts it, Christ’s message of “love. Not suspicion, disapproval, and judgment.”
Yet another level of evil operative in the parish neighborhood is revealed when Sister Aloysius holds a private conference with Donald’s mother, who works as a cleaning woman in a nearby apartment complex. In one electrifying conversation, Mrs. Muller reveals other facts about the boy’s home life and his personal confusion as well as her own attitude towards the accusations, exposing some even darker truths about race, class and the desperate search for upward mobility that private education promises to inner-city children; all these revelations seem to take Sister Aloysius by surprise.
Finally, the film exposes a deeper layer of institutional injustice that may account for Sister Aloysius’s need to dominate the only realm under her control. As she remarks at one point, in the Catholic Church, “men run everything.” Even she must admit that, in the Church’s patriarchal system, Father Flynn is technically her superior. Her only recourse to any higher authority is to talk to the pastor, who she is convinced will side with Father Flynn. She is not allowed to appeal to the bishop of the archdiocese. Indeed, when Father Flynn later upbraids her for speaking to someone else about the matter, saying, “The church is very clear. You’re supposed to go through the pastor,” she responds, “Why? Do you have an understanding, you and he?” Of course, her portrayal of the clerical boys’ club, especially in the 1960s, gains some credibility from the attempts at cover-ups of sexual abuse by members of the clergy in recent years.
Not enough praise can be given to the performances of Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn. How much more evidence do we need of their versatility? Among the six films he has made since his Academy-award winning performance as the foppish and unstable homosexual Truman Capote in 2005, Mr. Hoffman has appeared as a depressed but articulate English professor in “The Savages,” as a sleek executive-turned-murderer in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” and as a fast-talking alpha-male CIA agent in “Charlie Wilson’s War.” His portrayal of this likeable and eloquent young priest who may be hiding a sexual secret draws on all of those characterizations to add complexity to the battle of wills in this drama. Ms. Streep has been even busier and more adventurous in the ten films (count ‘em!) she has made in the last three years, appearing, among other roles, as a country-western singer in Robert Altman’s final film, “A Prairie Home Companion”; as a dying old woman mourning a lost love in the romantic weepie, “Evening”; as a psychotherapist whose son is dating one of her clients in the screwball comedy, “Prime”; as a hardened CIA operative in the political thriller, “Rendition”; as the elegant but tyrannical fashion editor Amanda Priestly, who makes life hell for Anne Hathaway in last year’s hit, “The Devil Wears Prada”; and in perhaps her riskiest career move, as the free-spirited single mother of the bride, singing and dancing to the music of ABBA in the over-the-top extravaganza, “Mamma Mia!” just last summer. While these roles have displayed a vast range of emotions, her portrayal of the conscientious and humorless Sister Aloysius requires instead a grim intensity and a willingness to forgo any audience sympathy or even approval. In every close-up and every debate with Hoffman, or with Amy Adams as the innocent but ultimately confident Sister James, and particularly with Viola Davis (whose ten minutes on screen are a knockout) as Donald’s world-wise mother, Streep employs the subtlest of expressions and body language to create the most chilling effects.
It is worth noting that only a few of Broadway’s most acclaimed dramas in recent years (“Closer,” “Proof,” and “The History Boys,” for example) have made it to the screen, and none very successfully in either financial or critical terms. “Doubt,” the Tony Award winner for Best Play in 2005, might well have been destined for the same fate. However, as both director and screenwriter, John Patrick Shanley may beat the odds this year with a film that is sure to garner many nominations and perhaps some awards at Oscar time. By expanding his narrative with more scenes and characters, Shanley demonstrates how a film can improve on a play’s psychological tensions. It can also deepen our awareness of the darkness to be encountered even within the most sacred locales of human faith and doubt.