Thursday, January 10, 2019

The Play's the Thing Act Two: (Or is the Movie the Thing...I'm not sure)

Doubt (2008)
What a difference a decade makes. Doubt was made in 2008, and the film set in a Catholic school seems to have great sympathy for Father Brendan Flynn. He's a hip, happening young priest -- as opposed to old, repressed Sister Aloysius Beauvier. Flynn is possibly a pedophile, but he coaches basketball and has fun stories in his homily, so is that such a big deal?

John Patrick Shanley wrote the play, Doubt, based on his experiences as a boy in parochial school in the 1960’s. The play started off-Broadway, made it to Broadway, and won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Drama. (Shanley was also an Oscar winner for his Moonstruck screenplay.)

Sister James is played by Amy Adams. Shanley claims that the character is based on one of his first teachers, Sister Margaret McEntee (to whom the film is dedicated). Sister James is a new math and history teacher at Saint Nicolas Church School. She has two very different superiors; Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the school principal, and Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the priest.

Sister Aloysius is a harsh disciplinarian who encourages Sister James to be much more strict with her students. She is distrustful of technological advances, confiscating transistor radios (which spread secular music) and ballpoint pens (which encourage lazy penmanship). She patrols the aisle during chapel services, hitting the back of students' heads if they chat or doze.

Sister Aloysius hosts dinners for the nuns; quiet, joyless affairs. The highlight seems to be recapping the Sunday homilies -- of which Aloysius is quite critical. She seems to live a life of fear and loathing, cloistered from the scary world.

On the other hand, Father Flynn initially seems to be the essence of cinema’s fighting young priests. We hear his homily shortly after JFK’s assassination in which he talks about how sorrow united the nation. “Your bond with your fellow being was despair. It was awful, but we were in it together. How much worse to be alone in grief? Doubt can be a bond powerful and sustaining as certainty.” (He also introduces both the title and theme of the film). It should be noted that all of Flynn’s preaching in the film seems to be Scripture free, and for the most part, God-free.

Flynn jokes with the kids of the schools, asking “How are the criminals doing today?” We see him taking a special interest in an altar boy, the first African American to attend the school. He gives him a toy, a dancing ballerina. And when the boy drinks the sacramental wine, Flynn meets with him.

But Sister Aloysius thinks there's more to the priest’s relationship to the boy. In a meeting about the school Christmas pageant, she accuses him, but Father Flynn makes plausible explanations.

Still concerned, Sister Aloysius goes to talk with the boy’s mother (Viola Davis), who admits that she too is suspicious of the priest. But she doesn’t care. In so many words, she admits she suspects her son is gay. If so, she thinks it's just as well if a kind man initiates her son. Even more, she appreciates the advantages the school offers her son, and she doesn't want to jeopardize her son’s opportunities.

This is too much for Sister Aloysius. She brings the matter to her superiors and tricks Flynn into thinking she has material to blackmail him. He does leave the school -- he's promoted to head of another school. The issue of his sexual conduct is, however, left in doubt.

The really strange thing about this film is that it seems to share the boy's mother's attitude. If Father Flynn was molesting a child, was it really that bad? I mean, since he was nice about it and all. And since we don't know for sure, the film seems to say, it wouldn't be worth a really thorough investigation. Surely he isn’t as bad as the sister who smacks a kid in the back of the head for napping in chapel.

Again, this film was made only ten years ago, but continuing revelations about abuses in the Roman Catholic Church along with the #MeToo movement put the events of this film in a very different light. The film gives Father Flynn a much greater benefit of then the character would receive if the film was made today. He seemed guilty to me.

I’m not giving this film our lowest clergy score, because though Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn are awful, Sister James appears to be a decent teacher. We’re giving the clergy and church of Doubt two of a possible four steeples.

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