Sunday, February 8, 2009

Doubt: what happened in the rectory

I think I know what happened behind the scenes in Doubt.

I know, I know. It's not supposed to matter: this is a film about doubt, for Pete's sake. It "isn’t about certainty, but ambiguity, that no man’s land between right and wrong, black and white" (Manohla Dargis, the New York Times); it's "not primarily a movie about a hot button topic but rather ... a comment on the potential futility in trying to impose moral clarity and unambiguous order on the murk of human motives and behavior" (Ray Greene,

Still, most of us don't leave the cinema debating the limits of moral clarity. We want to know what really happened in the rectory, and we wonder what Sister Aloysius doubted in the last scene. And because there seems to be no way of finding out, some of us feel just a tiny bit cheated. Richard Alleva, writing in Commonweal magazine, comments:
Ambiguity in drama and literature has had good press throughout the last century, and rightly so. If a novel, play, or movie is to reflect the depth and multifariousness of life, it’s bound to introduce uncertainties into plot and characterizations. But there is ambiguity and then there is ambiguity. There is the sort that points toward the underlying mysteries of existence, and there is the kind that results from the writer withholding basic information.

... You won’t be able to make up your mind about the priest, but that is simply because Shanley withholds decisive information about him, not because of richly layered characterization. What transpired in the rectory remains unseen and unknown.... The movie aims to instill doubt in the viewer and succeeds in doing so. But is Doubt’s doubt a truly disturbing emotion communicated by a probing work of art, or is it just the uncertainty we have to feel whenever we don’t have the facts of a case?

I agree with critics who liked the film because it shines a light on "the murk of human motives and behavior." I appreciate that it is not a mystery but a parable (the stage version is subtitled "A Parable"), and like all parables it reverses our expectations and leaves us with more questions than answers. Still, lover of whodunits that I am, I'm not satisfied to leave it undecided. Like Richard Alleva, I want to know what happened.

And now I think I do.

Warning: If you haven't seen Doubt yet, you'd better stop reading right now. You can always come back to this page later.

What Father did

Did Father Flynn molest Donald, or did he merely offer the boy friendship and protection? Throughout the first half of the film, we assume Donald is isolated because he is the first African-American student in this Irish-Italian school. Then we learn from his mother that the boy has suffered in school and at home because he is gay ("that way" is how she describes his orientation).

The filmmaker seems to be telling us that Father Flynn is also gay. There are the references to his impeccably groomed long fingernails, the pressed flowers in his missal, his joke about his not getting any girls to dance with him. I think Flynn looks at Donald and sees his younger, hurting self. I think he loves the boy and wants to protect him.

What goes on in the rectory? Maybe Flynn abused Donald. It's an easy conclusion to jump to, given the thousands of cases of priestly pedophilia uncovered over the last 50 years. But do Donald's reactions seem consistent with abuse? Does Donald's mother think the priest is harming her son? Would Father Flynn embrace the boy openly right after being accused of molesting him? Is Sister James's faith in Father Flynn just another sign of her naïveté? And why is there no evidence whatsoever that abuse has occurred?

Consider this possible alternate scenario: Flynn hears the boy's confession, whether sacramentally or casually made. He probably reassures Donald that it's OK to be gay. Maybe he encourages him in his stated wish to become a priest. He may even tell Donald that he himself is gay, promising to be there when he needs him.

Whatever happened between them, Donald has entrusted the priest with what, to this set of classmates, is still his secret. And Flynn is not about to betray Donald by telling Sister Aloysius what the boy said.

Once Sister goes on the warpath, Father Flynn is afraid. Not because she's right about his relationship with Donald, but because he doesn't want to lose his job yet another time. After all, there's some reason he didn't stay long at his previous parish assignments. Maybe his gay orientation became known. Maybe he was more outspoken about changes needed in the Church than his superiors wanted him to be. Maybe he knows that Roman hierarchs seem unable to distinguish between homosexuality and pedophilia and fears that Sister's charges will mean the end of, not only his job, but his vocation.

Flynn is afraid. He has secrets. But this does not mean he is guilty as charged.

Why Sister doubts

Viewers are puzzled not only about the priest's actions but also about Sister Aloysius's doubts. Why does this strong-willed woman suddenly confess to doubting? What are her doubts about?

Some think she is doubting Father Flynn's guilt. If so, this is a sudden, inexplicable shift that occurs mid-paragraph as she talks with Sister James, and there's no artistic or psychological reason for it.

Some think she is doubting God. Maybe, but God plays a very minor role in this drama.

I think the script is clear: from start to finish, Sister is utterly certain of the priest's guilt. She is simply not given to existential angst. What Sister doubts is not his guilt but the Church--which, in Roman Catholic terms, means the hierarchy.

Remember when she chides Sister James for tackling problems on her own when she should be referring them to the principal? Everyone reports to someone higher, she explains. The system is there; use it.

But by the end of the film, Sister Aloysius knows that the system is broken. She can't go to Father with her problems: he is the problem, or so she believes. She won't talk with the priest in his former parish, because she doesn't trust him to tell the truth. She eventually does go to Flynn's boss, the monsignor, but he predictably protects the priest. And when the bishop eventually moves Father Flynn to a different position, it is to a larger parish that also has a school.

Enough doubt to go around

Doubt was set in the last two months of 1964. Three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi that year. China detonated its first atomic bomb. The Vietnam war was escalating. Massive protests broke out at U.C. Berkeley. Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison for opposing Apartheid. Bob Dylan's protest songs were gaining a large audience. And the second Vatican council was in full swing, turning the Catholic church into something its older members barely recognized. Director John Patrick Shanley could not have chosen a more appropriate time for his parable.

I wish Meryl Streep, who is one of my favorite actors, had chosen to play Sister Aloysius with more restraint. Perhaps I'm willing to exonerate Father Flynn simply because Philip Seymour Hoffman played him with such subtlety and compassion. Sister A, by contrast, was a laughable caricature, when she could have been portrayed as a strong woman fighting for justice. This is a woman who, with only an inadequate, poorly trained staff, ran an inner-city elementary school whose graduates went on to good high schools. This is a woman who had the guts to stand up to the establishment on behalf of a gay black student. This is a woman who suspected child abuse decades before it would become the cause célèbre of journalists and lawyers.

Yes, I think she was mistaken. But she wasn't crazy.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I just saw the film and your analysis matches with my own thoughts.

Anonymous said...

i think that your analysis is thoughtful, but flawed.

why would donald have alcohol on his breath if they just had a talk about sexual orientation? maybe he did it as a coverup, but it doesn't make sense for the father to jeapordize donald's position as altar boy just to cover up a conversation. he could've made up a million other excuses for what happened between donald and him.

second, you mentioned that the sister knew that the heirarchy system was broken, but she didn't actually make a phone call or talk to anyone. she confessed that she lied at the end, and claimed that lying came with a price.

you completely leave out both of these facts.

LaVonne Neff said...

I left out a lot more than those two parts of the film--and certainly there are many possible interpretations. That, I think, is part of the film's genius--no case is airtight, and many viewpoints can be cogently argued.

poadshaw said...

What about the other altar boy (his name escapes me)? I found it strange that the camera kept focusing on him. Perhaps he was the child actually molested, and Donald was a witness. I'm not sure that explains why Donald would still behave positively toward Father Flynn. But again, I think perhaps Sister Aloysius' feeling about Father Flynn was right, but mistaken about which child he was involved with.

Eric said...

There is nothing to indicate that anyone has abused the kids at this school. My sense was that Fr Flynn was trying to protect the entire school community from its own underlying phobias, racism, etc. It seems plausible and realistic that any sexual activity and drinking occurred between Donald and one or more other classmates. Fr Flynn may have been able to protect Domald and any others from possible harms associated with homophobia. But, because of the unhealthy secretiveness necessary to do so in an unhealthy church, he was unable to deal with the underlying racism that could have resulted in Donald being singled out and removed from alter boy service and homophobia resulting in his own removal. The discussion with Donald's mother insinuates that she knows her son is gay but that she is concerned that the problem is about her son being singled out. She is more informed and knowledgable about the threats to her and Donald. Her experiences and concern for her son are, in my opinion, more relevant than the sister's could ever be. Whatever happened with Flynn was maybe only in the mind of a well intentioned person who acted according to her moral convictions as best she could given constraints caused by the church's outdated and unrealistic views(which are reason to cause doubt) on morality as well as how it sees its connection to the real world.

Nick White said...

I know this is an old blog but given that PSH just passed away I watched Doubt again, having already loved the film when it came out.

It's difficult for me to gauge the issue without bias because I liked Flynn (and PSH) so much. That said, I think I'm reasonably objective when I believe he was innocent.

The arguments in favor of guilt come down to these - 1) he apparently shows more interests in Donald than the other boys, 2)he appears (in his first sermon) to justify having doubts about one's own faith and/or conduct, 3) he was seen placing Donald's undershirt into the boy's locker and there would be no reason in the normal course of things for him to have an undergarment of one of the boys, 4) Donald returned from seeing Flynn with alcohol on his breath - indicating inappropriate conduct between the two, at the very least drinking wine together, 5) the alter boy's reaction of joy (and maybe some satisfaction?) when Flynn announced he was leaving, 6) Flynn's humor and manner during his dinner with the other men indicate that he isn't all he appears to be in public - his words were cutting and his humor at the disadvantage of his subjects.

But each of those reasons can be plausibly explained along with additional reasons to support innocence. 1) rather than inappropriate conduct, it's more plausible to believe Flynn showed interests in Donald because he was black and possibly gay. Remember, Flynn was a progressive, 2) his sermon about doubt reflects his progressive, real world approach to the church and nothing more, 3)there would be no obvious reason for Flynn placing the boy's shirt in the locker but to assume molestation from that is a stretch in light of others - e.g., perhaps the boy left it behind in the locker room?, 4)it isn't likely Donald had alcohol on his breath before seeing Flynn or it would have been detected, but it's also not likely Flynn would have let Donald leave an inappropriate meeting without assuring no trace was left of it, 5)the alter boy's reaction could be from a number of reasons beside molestation - was he the boy Flynn gently made fun of at basketball practice? did the boy want him gone because he didn't like Donald and Flynn protected him? 6) his conduct at the dinner was the negative side of his positive progressivism - he is relaxed and can be cutting, like all people, and isn't so reserved in private not to show it.

But the biggest reason to believe his innocence is he opening hugged the boy in the hallway in front of everyone even after the accusation came - that is not the actions of a man guilty of molestation. The one thing that does throw me is the wine drinking thing - Flynn explained the meeting as an opportunity to scold the boy for having drank wine previously. If that was so, Donald would not have come back from this meeting with alcohol on his breath - that offense would have already occurred previously or there would be no reason for Flynn to privately see Donald in the first place. That's a problem because that shows good support that Flynn lied about that meeting. He couldn't have been covering a conversation about homosexuality because that wouldn't explain the alcohol smell. Still, a lie on this issue (being the only one that really hurts innocence) isn't enough to conclude molestation. Most likely, in an effort to be "cool" and "disarming" with the boy Flynn did in fact give him a taste of wine while they talked about the boy's problems in the school. Conclusion - even by a preponderance of the evidence Flynn was innocent.

Anonymous said...

I believe father was guilty based on the one scene in the school yard with the blond haired boy who did not want the priest touching him. This scenario occurred twice, once in the gym and on the school line when Sister A called the boy, I believe his name William to her office. The boy was blond as father was and perhaps may have been his victim at some point. Additionally, there is a very important aspect that many of the critics have ignored. Sister A, was not naïve and had been married and was widowed. It was then that she joined the convent after losing her husband in WWII. She was aware of her surroundings. Additionally coming from this background, and having members of my family in both the priesthood and convents, there would have been no way a sister would have challenged a priest in the 60's as Viola Davis points out during the movie. It just did not happen, especially as he was so well liked by the monsignor. The meal scene which differentiates between the priests meals and the sister's meals shows the power of a priest at this time.

She was on keen with him, and the fact that he was moved around so often I believe was her justification of her suspicions.