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Doubt (2008)

"Before viewing" talks introduce the film without spoilers. Watch it, then click on the "After viewing" talk for more. More»» by Randy Heffner

Why the film is worth your time

The simple title Doubt captures the film’s exploration well. The story deals with certainty and doubt around certain events, but the film evokes an exploration of doubt that runs deeper than the story. But, whether one engages at the story level or

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"After viewing" talks assume that you have seen the film. They will contain spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

How the film enriched and changed me

Doubt reinforced for me the dangers of prematurely moving into a position of certainty. In the film, the core issue of doubt versus certainty revolves around facts of this world — whether or not Father Flynn did or did not do certain things. Yet the film’s themes of tradition, purity, and the spiritual life also reinforced for me the dangers of moving from a position of spiritual faith to spiritual certainty. I allow that this may be me reading my own faith experience into Doubt, but there it is. In any case, the many different ways that “doubt versus certainty” is embodied in the film provide ample opportunity to consider more generally the role — and the value — of doubt in one’s own life. Taking pieces from the stances toward doubt of Sr. Aloysius, Mrs. Miller, and Sr. James, I come away hoping to be more aware of and sensitive to the tension between pursuit of love and pursuit of justice. The ending of Doubt, in its juxtaposition of Father Flynn’s promotion and Sister Aloysius’ breakdown, hits me particularly strongly. It asks whether, by moving prematurely to a position of certainty, we might actually fail to resolve a problem and instead merely move it to another realm.

The single most powerful thing that Doubt does is something it doesn’t do. By not finally telling us what actually happened between Father Flynn and Donald Miller, Doubt forces us (if we stay engaged with the film) to deal with the issue of our own certainty or doubt about the matter — and the basis upon which may have certainty. This force in the film is further strengthened because, although we clearly know that something happened at Father Flynn’s previous parish, we don’t know what. What will we conclude? Can we reasonably, from what is presented in the film, prove Father Flynn’s guilt or innocence to anyone other than ourselves? What, precisely, could we find him guilty of? Even if his offenses at his prior parish involved children, what does that actually say about any possible offense at St. Nicholas? Do we have the emotional, spiritual, and mental fortitude to stand firm in a position of doubt and uncertainty about Father Flynn? And, having seen our own ability to do so or not do so, will we come away with any more ability to live with our doubt about other matters?

Before considering the film’s core question of doubt concerning Father Flynn’s actions, it is useful to note three things about the broad context of the film. First, in its stageplay form, the title is Doubt: A Parable. This encourages us to allow the film’s impact to go beyond the issues immediately portrayed on screen. Second, Father Flynn’s opening message also encourages broader exploration. With references to national tragedy, personal tragedy, personal guilt, and personal confusion, he communicates a broad-based message about despair, doubt, and their power to create bonds that are as powerful as certainty. By opening with a general discussion about doubt and certainty, not a specific discussion in relation to another’s potential wrongdoing, the film establishes a wide field for considering doubt and certainty. It also establishes the state of being in doubt as a potential good. Third, the film’s setting during Vatican II brings the issue of church reform directly into the film. Thus, while the issues surrounding Fr. Flynn remain the primary on-screen focus of the film, we can fairly say that the film is aiming for an impact on our hearts and minds that ranges more widely than simply what is on-screen.

Sister Aloysius, as the driving force of Doubt’s plot, moves hardly a whit throughout the film until the very end. She begins as a staunch traditionalist who is firm, confident, and convinced that something is not right with Fr. Flynn, and she remains that way up until 30 seconds before the credits roll. Even her appearance never changes — we never once see her in anything other than her complete habit. Her hard exterior gives no clue that she might have any softness or compassion within — or doubt. She has drawn her conclusions about Frosty the Snowman (and its pagan roots), about students (that they must be ridden hard), about church reform (that priests and nuns are separate and different than parishioners), and about Fr. Flynn (that he is not to be trusted). She sees herself, in various ways, as the guardian and defender of propriety and uprightness. Driven by intuition — and potentially by a dislike of Fr. Flynn's desire to change the church's relationship with parishioners — Sr. Aloysius sets herself against Fr. Flynn.

Her intuitions can be good: Sr. Aloysius' suspicions concerning William London's nosebleed are correct (as shown by his wry smile back toward the church as he wipes his nose and lights a cigarette). Her crafty methods can be effective: Sr. James' use of the "pope mirror" proves quite helpful to keep London in line. She can have compassion, even violating other principles in the process: She lies to protect Sr. Veronica even though the rules say that nuns going blind should not continue in their posts. She can be open to new things: She becomes attached to news reports on the confiscated transistor radio. Yet none of these play out well in relation to Fr. Flynn.

Even before any suspicions arise, Sr. Aloysuis distrusts Fr. Flynn, telling Sr. James to let her know if she observes anything unusual. When Sr. James does come to her, Sr. Aloysuis seems to assume from the start that indeed something has happened. Because of the seriousness of Fr. Flynn's presumed violation, she is dead set against him. She operates in mode of proving her suspicions, not one of testing her suspicions. She tells Sr. James, Mrs. Miller, and Fr. Flynn that she is sure of his guilt. How is she sure? She gives "experience" as her primary reason. She says, "I know people."

Based on her assuredness, Sr. Aloysius maneuvers and manipulates to corner Fr. Flynn from any angle that she can. He slips from her grasp in the Christmas pageant conversation with Sr. James. Although Sr. James is happy to hear a credible explanation, Sr. Aloysius remains steadfast in her conviction of Fr. Flynn's guilt, zealous — actually, overzealous — in her certainty. The more she brushed aside any reason for doubt, the more I squirmed in my seat watching her.

From the beginning, we see some humble reserve in Father Flynn — he knows he is being watched. Our first glimpse of him is from above, over the stairway railing. Upon his entering the same room in a later scene, we learn that this first shot was from the vantage point of the eye of God in the stained glass window above the staircase. He pauses and looks up at the eye, then moves on. His appeal to Sr. James in the garden is based on love and compassion and how Sr. Aloysius' way leaves Donald with no support. We see his softness and care also in the flowers pressed in his Bible, which he later leaves behind, arranged as a gift on Sr. Aloysius' desk.

In the Christmas pageant conversation, once he realizes the tone of Sr. Aloysius' investigation, Fr. Flynn becomes uncomfortable. He senses in her tone that she is not merely curious but is actually in hot pursuit. If we assume his story is true, his discomfort makes sense. There is a good reason to withhold the truth — he wants to protect Donald in a manner quite similar to the way Sr. Aloysius protects Sr. Veronica. He realizes the potential appearance of impropriety, yet he senses that she will not be easy to satisfy. He had raised questions about Sr. Veronica's eyesight, and he let it drop at her explanation, but seeing herself as the lone protector of propriety, she does not let her suspicions go. Her doggedness forces the exposure of Donald's altar wine offense, undoing the grace Fr. Flynn had purportedly offered him. Fr. Flynn let his displeasure be known. Sr. James challenges Sr. Aloysius' prejudices against Fr. Flynn, but nothing moves her from her determination to pursue Fr. Flynn.

When Sr. Aloysius continues her investigation by having Mrs. Miller in, Fr. Flynn is incensed. He forces a confrontation, believing that she might be brought to see the weakness in her own position. On multiple points, he demonstrates that she does not have a basis to believe as she does, but to no avail. Her certainty remains, yet she unable to prove anything or to obtain a confession. She fails to achieve Fr. Flynn's removal. Having failed, she make a subtle but profound change in tactics. She continues trying to achieve the same end result by whatever means she can. Finally she succeeds: She traps him in his past sins. Both legally and in terms of Christian forgiveness, his past sins have no bearing on the present situation, but this does not matter to her entrenched goal of taking him down. Even though she herself admits to past mortal sins, she refuses to consider any possibility that she, in her sins, is at all similar to Fr. Flynn in his sins. In the end, faced with the forced exposure of his past sins, he gives in to her demands and resigns his post. It hurt to watch. Although I find no strong basis other than Fr. Flynn's own words upon which to believe his side of the story, I find no evidence to believe Sr. Aloysius' allegations. I feel Fr. Flynn's tears as he asks her, "Have you never done anything wrong?"

Mrs. Miller's enigmatic presence in the film provides a contrast to Sr. Aloysius in how we might deal with doubt. In her presence, I felt strongly a mother's pain and fear for her son's future and for the life of compromises she sees she must navigate. She doesn't understand precisely the direction Sr. Aloysius is going with the conversation, which leads her to react in multiple ways. When Mrs. Miller says, "You're the one forcing people to say things," it captures well the reason for her divergent responses. At each turn, reacting out of concern for Donald, she concludes based on what is best for his future. Among the turns in the conversation, Mrs. Miller:

  • Says that Donald's graduation is all she cares about.
  • Is quick to gloss over the suggestion that something "may not be right" in Donald's relationship with Fr. Flynn by saying, "there's something wrong with everybody."
  • Is quick to dismiss even the specific suggestion of "advances made" on Donald, honing quickly in on there being no evidence.
  • When pressed, points out that it's not Donald's fault if there's "something floating around between this priest" and her son.
  • When further pressed, startles Sr. Aloysius by saying that Donald's graduation should not be put at risk, even if it means Donald having an improper relationship with Fr. Flynn ("Let him have him then...It's just till June.").
  • Downplays concern about Fr. Flynn's alleged offenses by arguing for the value that he might be bringing, particularly in his care for Donald.
  • Corners Sr. Aloysius into saying just how far she would go — throwing Donald out of St. Nicholas school — to achieve her aim, revealing how Sr. Aloysius would inflict a cruel injustice, laying blame on Donald, to prevent another injustice.

Mrs. Miller and Sr. Aloysius both hold tightly to their bottom line objectives, yet they do so from very different perspectives. The difference between them is brought out when Mrs. Miller says, "You know the rules maybe, but that don’t cover it." Sr. Aloysius' is the defender of propriety, the aggressor, the one who at all costs must achieve justice and protection. She is indeed willing to move away from God in the pursuit of wrongdoing. Mrs. Miller's position is that of a trapped soul who must "accept what you gotta accept and you work with it." She sees no options and believes achieving good things may require accepting horrible things. Sr. Aloysius suppresses doubt from a position of power and principle; Mrs. Miller from a position of powerlessness and pragmatism.

Sr. James brings in a third stance toward doubt: She suppresses doubt because of her desire for peace and charity. She quickly stands up to say, "Oh, what a relief! That explains everything! Thanks be to God! Look, Sister, it was all a mistake!" Sr. Aloysius derides her rush to resolution by saying, "You’re not [convinced]. You just want things to be resolved so you can have simplicity back." There's something to Sr. Aloysius point, particularly regarding Sr. James' desire for a naive and simple peace, yet in Sr. James' inability to sleep, I feel something more. Her unsettledness runs very deep. She turned loose a dragon, and it sits heavy on her conscience. Concerned about justice yet also wanting to live with charity, she hurts greatly to see Sr. Aloysius pursue Fr. Flynn so intently and she wants no further part of it. It cuts her so sharply that Sr. James is provoked to an uncharacteristic outburst, revealing even her sense that Sr. Aloysius looks down on her personally. Sr. Aloysius' manner of defending tradition and propriety hurts more people than just Fr. Flynn. Time solidifies Sr. James in her support for Fr. Flynn. She later tells him, "I don’t believe it." Then, near the end, she tells Sr. Aloysius, "I don’t think Father Flynn did anything wrong." Though at first she jumped at the chance for resolution, she seems now more steadied and sure in her conclusion, even though she has only his word to go on. And she remains weighed down by her participation in Fr. Flynn's demise.

I feel something worthy in all three positions toward doubt. From the start, it is a challenge to like Sr. Aloysius, yet her tenacity in pursuit of justice is commendable. She simply takes it too far. It is easy to feel compassion for Mrs. Miller, and the strength of her love for Donald is beautiful. Yet even with the complexities of the situation, it hurts to think about how quickly she might compromise one part of Donald's wellbeing in favor of another — she herself hurts terribly about that. Although Sr. James' rush to resolution is quick and somewhat naive, as I reflect further, something about it draws me in. Wouldn't love be quick to "believe all things"? Love would also be wise and watchful, not wanting to be duped, but if the evidence isn't there, and if the explanation fits that facts (as Fr. Flynn's does), love would believe and welcome. Sr. James' weakness is that she seems inclined to drop every inkling of suspicion of Fr. Flynn. It seems appropriate to continue to watch. Love and justice and not mutually exclusive.

Considering Doubt as a parable, I experience Sr. Aloysius as one encountering a difficult issue of doctrine or belief. Christians are sometimes united not by so much by their faith, but by their certainties — they are convinced of this or that doctrine, or this or that interpretation of Scripture. Their certainty becomes the unification in which they build defensive wall — and perhaps take offensive measures — against those outside of their certainty. We may have a prejudgment as to what the truth is; there may be a doctrine that fits well with our basic outlook. It fits with what we want to believe, and yet some piece of information is withheld. Our doctrine can't be proven; the answer is not clearly provided. Yet when the path of direct logic is blocked, we, with certainty driven by our prejudged views, may pursue justifying our doctrine by another means. A subtle turn of logic, a slight change of tactic, and proof of our prejudged doctrine seems attainable. We miss the fact that, in our turn of logic, we may have stepped outside the chain of logic and arrived at an invalid answer, in the same way that Sr. Aloysius used Fr. Flynn's past against him. Victorious in proving our doctrine, we are satisfied, even self-satisfied, in our beliefs. Yet, if we step back and observe, we may later be dismayed to find that our turn of logic has simply moved the issue to some other place — perhaps even made it a bigger issue. Like Fr. Flynn, it gets a promotion. If we are lucky, we will then, like Sr. Aloysius, feel the doubt we had suppressed all along and may return to a deeper contemplation of the issue. The mysteries of faith are great, and they provide many reasons to live by faith instead of certainty. Simone Weil once said, "In the Church, considered as a social organism, the mysteries inevitably degenerate into beliefs." She also said, "The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation." With her use of "belief" and "affirmation," I believe she means that we reduce the mysteries down to certainties. We prefer to live by certainty, having a definitive answer now, whether the evidence warrants a firm answer or not. Instead we should live in the tension of faith, waiting for clarity to be revealed in its own time, contemplating the mysteries and living in the midst of them. Most Christians would agree that some things are certainly given for us to know — they are there plainly in the Bible's text — while other things are not so clear. Where we differ is first in where we draw the line between the two, but more importantly, it is in the love and grace in our stance toward those that draw the line differently.

Whether or not this reads too much into Doubt, the film's core impact on me for personal relationships is strong. I need more of Sr. James' loving desire to believe well. I need to more deeply feel her remorse. Even though she was not directly responsible for Fr. Flynn's demise, I need to have her remorse active in me as a guard against premature judgment of others. At the same time, I want to have Sr. Aloysius' tenacity, yet wrapped in a true context of love and grace. And while recognizing the complexities of life, I want to be aware of the compromises I'm willing to make — and especially to have compassion and grace toward others that feel trapped into a compromise. As he begins his sermon, Fr. Flynn's first words in the film are, "What do you do when you're not sure?" Doubt strengthens me to maintain faith through the mysteries around me, to hope for the best in others, and to place love as my central driving force in the midst of uncertainty.

  • The idyllic opening of the film sets a beautiful and peaceful setting of life swirling in and around the church and the Sunday morning routine.
  • On the other hand, at the very opening of the film, the music is, for a moment, ominous over a desolate scene, changing to a darker chord as the view changes from street to churchyard, then again to the joyful sound of the old man's zither — it struck an appropriate mix of feelings for the film.
  • Man's reach for outer space, represented in the poster on the wall above Jimmy's headboard — a note of hope in the face of uncertainty.
  • Donald enters into the film in weakness: He's overslept; he's not certain of his weight — it sets a tone for his vulnerability.
  • The irony that Sr. Aloysius is put off by Fr. Flynn's sweet tooth, yet she is guilty of something actually worse, that she gave up sugar for lent, even though she doesn't like it, so it misses the point of lent to give it up.
  • The cat and mouse metaphor was apt for representing Sr. Aloysius self image, although the film played it too strongly, particularly in Sr. Aloysius' reaction to Mrs. Carson's presentation of the cat's success ("It takes a cat." "Yes it does. Yes it does.").
  • Although Mrs. Miller is a cleaning lady, she comes to the meeting with Sr. Aloysius dressed in her very nicely, so as to make the best impression — it added to the impact of the fear-based position of weakness that Mrs. Miller is in.
  • In the Christmas pageant conversation, the slow shift of topic from pageant to Donald is very well crafted. I felt the rising realization on Fr. Flynn's part that Sr. Aloysius had ulterior motives.
  • After Fr. Flynn's plausible explanation that Donald had drunk altar wine and Fr. Flynn had called him in to discuss it, Sr. Aloysius dismisses the explanation by saying, "These types of people are clever." — it captured well her immovable disposition to not believe Fr. Flynn.
  • In the hall, Donald is crestfallen when Fr. Flynn doesn't greet him. Whatever happened, it had not changed his affection for Fr. Flynn.
  • In the final confrontation, Sr. Aloysius saying, "I will decide what's important." — it emphasized her seeing herself as the sole protector of propriety.
  • "What did you see that convinced you so thoroughly?" "What does it matter?"
  • The hymn that plays over the closing credits begins with "Come, thou, redeemer of the earth" — a fitting call and prayer at the end of what has transpired.

Screenshots and dialog copyright © 2008 by the filmmakers.


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