Bweinh! Goes to the Movies — Doubt

January 31, 2009, 6:00 pm; posted by
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It is 1964, and inside the most packed Catholic church I have ever seen, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is delivering a homily on the virtues of doubt. In the faces of the unrealistically attentive parishioners, we see just how relevant the topic is. Here a lonely man, there a sick woman, all around a community of people who remember all too well that earthshaking day, less than a year before, when they witnessed the murder of their beloved president. “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty,” the priest tells them. “When you are lost, you are not alone.”

A peculiar conclusion to a sermon, I thought — and so did Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the rock-ribbed battleship of a school principal, who views ballpoint pens as tools of Satan, casts aside cough drops (“candy by another name”), and unironically refers to Frosty the Snowman as “disturbing and heretical.” She views herself as a guardian who foresees and prevents evil, and soon the unease she felt at Flynn’s sermon of doubt is fanned into a flame of full-blown suspicion. “Every easy choice today comes with a consequence tomorrow,” she tells the innocent, young Sister James (Amy Adams), whose observations quickened the fire. Aloysius, we can see, is not afraid of the hard choice.

A cinematic adaptation of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning parable of a play, Doubt is at its most powerful in the adroitly written interplay between its major characters; all four performers have been justly nominated for Academy Awards. Between those scenes of brisk dialogue, the symbolism is laid on a trifle thick — wind, okay, we get it — and the juxtaposition of the sisters’ timid, sedate dinners with the rollicking, smoke-filled bacchanalia of the priest and monsignor is comically blunt. But once the movie gets down to what it’s really about, it is spellbinding.

What do we believe, and why? What evidence do we demand of ourselves to support the conclusions at the heart of our unspoken philosophies? Aloysius is a woman of unshakable conviction, a fevered faith in, above all, the certainty of her own stern judgment. “I know. I am right,” she tells Flynn. “And nothing I can say will change that,” he not-quite-asks. She ponders, frowns. “That’s right.”

But this faith, blind or otherwise, does not make her wrong, not necessarily — and therein is the genius of the script. Like a liberal arts education, this film is about questions, not answers, about how we arrive at a conclusion. I left with an opinion about the movie’s pivotal issue, but the answer is ultimately unknowable, left undefined even by the powerful scene where Flynn and Aloysius engage in anguished, high-stakes psychological combat. Why did I conclude as I did; how could I conclude at all? Is it ever possible to make peace with discomfiting uncertainty, or will we choose to believe certain things just because it’s easier that way?

“You just want things resolved so you can have simplicity back,” Aloysius tells James early on. By the time the film ends, we discover that she was speaking to herself as well. Thank God that He calls us all beyond the mere simplistic — and gives us strength to stand.

I give this film a “Bweinh” out of “Bweinh!” (6 out of 7).


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