You might be horrified to learn that Hollywood has turned its attentions to child abuse in the Catholic Church, but as Martin Saunders discovers, Doubt is thoughtful, subtle and ultimately good news for the Church
They’re probably never going to make a movie about the Alpha course. To my knowledge there’s never been a Hollywood auction for the rights to a Bill Hybels book. I’m guessing there isn’t a Joel Edwards biopic on the slate either. There are plenty of stories about the life of the Church that Christians might like the moviemakers to tell, but they don’t, and they probably won’t. You see, positive tales about faith, growth and transformation just don’t put bottoms on cinema seats.
The theme of Church-based moral failure is a different proposition however. So when I first heard that luminaries Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman had signed up to make Doubt, a movie about alleged child abuse in a Catholic school, I winced. Hollywood isn’t interested in our good news stories, and the abhorrent scandal of abuse in the Church certainly isn’t one of them. So, I wondered, had the megalithic movie shark smelled the blood leaking inconspicuously from the Church’s great wound?
Happily, I’ve learned that my fears were unjustified. John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his own Pulitzer-winning play takes an admirably light-handed approach to such an emotive issue, and uses it as a launch pad to address an even wider theme – that of faith and doubt.
“I have my certainty !”
Hoffman, whose presence indicates that this is An Important Movie, is electric as Father Flynn, a charismatic priest who is seeking to usher the winds of 1960s change at a Bronx school. In his way stands Sister Aloysius (Streep, in Oscar-hungry mode), the ironfisted principal who entrenches herself in the creaking traditions of the school. When Aloysius discovers that Flynn has been giving significant attention to the school’s first black student, Donald Miller, she hurtles to a terrible conclusion. Without any real proof beside her own conviction, she embarks on a personal crusade against Flynn, determined to uncover the truth and see the change-hungry priest removed from the school.
The film’s greatest strength is also the aspect that will leave many movie-goers feeling short-changed, as Shanley’s light touch leads to aninevitable ambiguity. Father Flynn is an immensely loveable character; a walking advertisement for church attendance. Yet behind the brilliant sermons and warm public façade, is he actually a paedophile? Just like the members of many real life congregations who have faced this same issue, we find ourselves desperately hoping that the accusations prove false. As the credits roll, we’re left with more questions than answers.
All this ambiguity provides the perfect crucible to discuss all kinds of faith-centred issues. As we enter the very different lives of the two main protagonists, we watch a mighty contrast unfold. He interprets his faith as a mandate for joy, with alcohol and cigarettes as his righthand men; she sees hers as a justification for solemnity and regulation. Which of them has got it more right?
The story is propelled by a third character, the naïve young Sister James (Amy Adams, last seen as a princess in Enchanted), who takes her lead from Aloysius but finds herself drawn to Flynn’s faithful charisma. It’s she who initially notices the unusual relationship between priest and boy, and it’s through her eyes that we watch the ensuing power struggle unfold. As she grapples with this challenge to her faith and calling, we can’t help but join her.
Real tension emerges as Sister Aloysius steps outside the proper channels of authority, and begins to dig at the priest’s past. Again, we’re left slightly unsure about precisely what she’s discovered, but the detective work enrages Father Flynn, whose reaction throws up further questions. Chiefly – should a person be judged on what they may or may not have done in their past, or on who they are now?
Then, the real meat of the story comes to light – how do we deal with our doubts? Flynn takes them in his stride; Aloysius appears to operate without them. She is a woman of conviction, and it’s what she terms ‘my certainty’ which drives her persecution of the priest. So, the film asks, is it better to struggle with doubts, or live seemingly free of them? It’s a stimulating debate, and the pulse at the centre of the film. Until that is, it’s final, memorable line turns everything upside down.
With its stellar cast and pungent award aroma, Doubt should get the wide audience it deserves. It’s a thoughtful, deep and honest look at the questions that irritate every sincere soul from time to time. As such, it’s a very natural discussion starter – far more so than one of the many Christ-allegory films of recent years. The big-budget Narnia adventures are fantastic discussion tools if they are applied by a small group or church leader, but it’s debatable whether many moviegoers respond to them with a conviction that they should investigate the claims of Jesus. Evangelistically speaking, one needs to make the bridge between what they’ve seen, and what you want them to think about.
That’s not the case with Doubt. The themes are primal and universally resonant, and the discussion of faith is not allegorical, but rather the very point of the movie. In practice, that means an unchurched moviegoer might well respond by wanting to investigate or return to the idea of faith. This is exciting news, and makes the film a natural choice to view with a non-Christian friend, whether you deem them to be a ‘seeker’ already or not. One note of caution however – due to its ambiguity the film is just as likely to turn someone away from faith as toward it. Nevertheless, if we’re careful not to overzealously guide any resulting conversation, Doubt could prove the most powerful evangelistic tool the cinema has given us since The Passion of the Christ.
The film is even more suitable for discussion within Christian small groups, and for most of the same reasons. The protagonists’ differing approaches to the spiritual life should provoke questions about holiness and grace, joy and purity; their conflicting ideas about change have powerful implications about the way we structure our own church communities. And alongside those megathemes of faith and doubt, issues of forgiveness and repentance are clearly present and ripe for debate. In one key sequence, Flynn asks the witch-hunting Aloysius “Where is your compassion?” “Nowhere you can get at it,” comes the stony-faced reply. What place for grace when we believe our brother in Christ has fallen?
To see Hollywood approach such a subject in such a way is both admirable and unexpected – but the real surprise is that out of a potentially damning theme, Shanley has crafted a film that could be good news for Christians. It may be too ambiguous for some, but gladly, it may have one of the most ironic movie titles ever. It’s my hunch that, far from being a bad news story, Doubt will raise questions of faith among the faithless.
Martin Saunders is Editor of Youthwork magazine