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Cinema in Focus: ‘Doubt’

This film powerfully explores the complex realities of faith and doubt.

3 Stars — Thought-provoking

The power of doubt is not to be underestimated, but neither is that of faith. Both are inextricably bound into a single cord that defines our relationship with God and with one another. At times, one may seem to have conquered the other, but that is only until the next experience either undermines faith or banishes doubt. This complex reality is insightfully presented by John Patrick Shanley in his play and his film, which are simply titled Doubt.

The setting of the story is 1964 in a Catholic Parish church and school in a northeastern U.S. city that ministers to an Irish and Italian neighborhood. It is a time of civil unrest after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and ecclesiastical unrest with Vatican II.

Tradition is represented by the principal of the school, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep). Sister Beauvier’s pain has caused her to retreat into a cold world of rules and fears. This is symbolically presented on film as the frigid wind blows through her attempt to hide in her tradition.

Change is represented by the pastor of the parish, the Rev. Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). New to the congregation, Father Flynn’s desire to bring love into the church and kindness into the school is seen as a threat and creates such a fear in Sister Beauvier that she interprets his interest in the only black student as being improper.

Having planted suspicion in her teachers as well, the most innocent among them, Sister James (Amy Adams), experiences the most angst as she begins to doubt her pastor. Their gossip about him is used by Father Flynn in a pointed but effective sermon about the far-reaching destruction such suspicion creates.

The problem is that he may actually be guilty. Father Flynn’s behavior makes it clear that something is wrong. He is not only elusive and defensive, he has been transferred to three churches within five years.

This is where doubt finds its footing. Suspicion, gossip, deceit, defensiveness, lies, cover-ups — all of these undermine our faith. But when there is no proof and it is only an intuitive “certainty” that motivates our behavior, then doubting our doubt becomes necessary. If we fail to do so, we become overwhelmed as doubt pervades our lives.

This is where Sister Beauvier eventually finds herself. Explaining to Sister James that you must “take a step away from God when you attack evil,” it is clear that she has taken too many steps away and is overcome by her isolated distance from God and others.

Setting this study within a Catholic Parish accentuates faith and doubt, but faith and doubt are two sides of a coin that are universally experienced and that every person must address. The choices of whom we put our trust in and who we decide to disbelieve involve not only those others but ourselves.

We even vacillate between trust and doubt of ourselves and our own motives and beliefs. It is this internal, external as well as spiritual experience that makes trust and doubt so fascinating, multilayered and infinitely important. This film explores the complexities of faith and doubt in a powerful way, and the characters are developed and acted with depth and integrity.

Discussion:

» Director and writer John Patrick Shanley decided to tell only Hoffman whether he was guilty of the pedophilia of which he is indirectly accused. Do you believe that he was told that he abused Donald Miller (Joseph Foster)? Why?

» Sister James decides that her pastor is innocent and that he has been accused without proof. Why do you think she believes Father Flynn?

» Do you believe that the requirement of Catholic priests to be celibate makes the accusation more likely to be true? Why or why not? Do you think priests should be allowed to marry like Protestant pastors?

» The reaction of Mrs. Miller (Viola Davis) casts more suspicion on Father Flynn. Do you think it helped reinforce the principal’s “certainty”?

Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church on the Mesa. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com.

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