Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Pick Your Doubt: a Review of Doubt

I did not bother to read any reviews of Doubt before seeing it, though I had gotten the sense that it had received positive reviews. So I went in not knowing what it was about. Hollywood has not been known for producing highly nuanced films about the Catholic church or, for that matter, any other organized religion. Considering this I was expecting one of several simplistic plots. The pedophile priest molesting a boy in his care. The never doubting man of faith having his faith shaken, which opens his eyes to a more liberal way of seeing the world. There is always line of the charming and liberal character who shakes up an establishment hidebound by tradition and brings it into the modern age. (Sister Act anyone) We could also serve up a feminist tale of a brave nun challenging the patriarchal priesthood. This last plot line would work well with the first one as the patriarchal male priest could also be a child molester. In essence Doubt is all of these things or at least might be about them. This is the genius of this film, based on a play. It is wide open and one is free to see different things and different people are going to come away having watched different movies. Because of this there is no clear cut message to the film, no heroes or villains and as such it cannot be boiled down to some trite truism. This itself could easily have turned into just another exercise in post modernist storytelling where it not for the leading parts being played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams who each put in Oscar worthy performances. This is one of the best acted films ever made. The only thing I can think to compare it to is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The essential premise of the story concerns a conflict between Sister Aloysius Beauvier, a nun and the principle at a Catholic Middle School, and Father Brendan Flynn. Father Flynn is an easy going priest, well liked by the students at school. He gives the boys tips on asking girls to dance; if no one accepts than you become a priest. The conflict plays itself out before Sister James, who stands in for the audience as someone caught between the two sides. Sister Beauvier objects to Father Flynn’s attempted innovations. The year is 1964 and Father Flynn openly, in his sermons, talks about religious doubt as having some sort of existential value. (He could almost be a Catholic version of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik.) He uses ball point pens, likes to put large amounts of sugar in his tea and wishes to stick in secular songs such as “Frosty the Snowman” into the Christmas pageant. In addition to this Sister Beauvier comes to take a critical eye to Father Flynn’s friendship with the school’s sole black student, Donald Muller, who also serves as an alter boy. There is no hard evidence against Father Flynn that he has done anything improper, but she pursues the matter based on her heartfelt faith in his guilt. And why should she not think like this? This is someone who has staked her life around something that she cannot prove but believes with absolute certainty in her heart. If it is enough for her to know in her heart that the Catholic church is the Truth than it should also be enough that she know in her heart that Father Flynn is a pedophile.

As I said before, different people will see different things in the film. The film that I saw was one in which Father Flynn is a closeted but celibate homosexual, who strayed at some point in his past. As such he is hiding something; something that, as this is 1964, if it were known would bring him down. Because of this he has had to leave a number of positions as he has clashed with others who have then gone digging into his past and have found hard proof as to his sexual orientation. Donald clearly is gay. The fact that both him and Father Flynn have this in common creates a bound between them and is why Father Flynn takes such an active interest in him. This is not a sexual relationship. Just because Father Flynn is gay it does mean that he is a pedophile. On the contrary Father Flynn is the sort of responsible adult who can help Donald navigate the issues that he is dealing with. This allows for everyone to win which is important for me since I came away liking all the characters. Sister Beauvier is right to be concerned and to have Father Flynn removed, but Father Flynn really is the wonderful person that he appears to be.

1 comment:

Miss S. said...

Time magazine had an article on homosexual priests several years ago that was pretty informative (as in it had a couple of interviews with gay Catholic priests and shed some light on their outlooks). Unfortunately I can't find the article online; but there are several articles, such as this one that reference it.

On a purely superficial level; it seems as if the Roman Catholic priesthood is a custom tailored for a gay man.