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DVD Review: Doubt

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When I first saw Doubt in the theater, I left not really knowing what to think. You could say I left with doubts about Doubt (cheap joke, I know). The film ends rather abruptly and it caught me off-guard. This led me to not really care for the film, but over the next couple of months I found myself coming back to the movie several times in my thoughts. Because of this, it seemed fair to give the film a second chance.

Based on the Pulitzer-winning play penned by John Patrick Shanley, who also adapted the play into the screenplay for the film, Doubt is set in 1964 New York City. With the country still reeling from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the cultural upheaval of the Civil Rights Movement, and with the Catholic Church in the midst of Vatican II, the film capitalizes on a period filled with conflict and hope, doubt and certainty.

Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is a nun and principal of St. Nicholas school in the Bronx. She is a cold, brooding character whom everyone fears and who rules the school with an iron fist. The antithesis of Sister Aloysius is Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a progressive priest who envisions a welcoming church whose congregants consider the nuns and priests of their local parish as members of their families. Caught between them is the meek, naive, blank slate of a nun, Sister James (Amy Adams). Sister James vacillates between the friendly, lovable disposition of Father Flynn and the dragon-like character of Sister Aloysius. The situation becomes more complicated when Sister James notices some peculiar actions of Donald Miller, the school's only African American student, and Father Flynn. She alerts Sister Aloysius to the goings-on and Sister Aloysius becomes convinced of impropriety between the Father and the student and begins an intense campaign to oust the priest from the school and the parish.

Probably due to the hardships in translating a work from the stage to the screen, the biggest shortfall of the film is that it is a talking-head movie. The film is entirely dependent on dialogue and the facial expressions of the characters. However, this deficiency is largely overcome by the absolutely remarkable acting of the four main actors, all of whom deservedly received Oscar nominations. Another disappointment was the quite heavy-handed symbolism thrust upon the audience. Cats catching mice, windows that keep cracking open, light bulbs bursting during heated moments of dialogue, thunder and lightning strikes–all of these manipulate the audience's perception of what is going on in an almost insulting way, as opposed to letting the audience figure things out for themselves.

The film's subject matter and themes, however, are strong enough to overcome the small number of shortcomings, particularly on a second viewing. Of course the main theme is the complexity of certainty and doubt. This much is evident from the opening moments of the film in which Father Flynn attempts to bring hope to his troubled congregation in telling them, "Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone." For Father Flynn there is a place for doubt as it encourages community and fellowship in the doubting one reaching out to his neighbors for help and encouragement. Doubt is something universal to the human condition and should not be feared or shied away from. At the same time, there must be a realization that absolute certainty about everything is unattainable, and some things must be left to mystery. Sister Aloysius represents the opposite view. For her, doubt is a weakness that has no place in one's life. Certainty is a virtue and one cannot waver from it no matter how much evidence may be stacked against such certainty or how much evidence may be lacking to support such certainty. Once the mind is made up, that is the final word on the issue at hand.

Though many threads can be pulled out of this one theme alone, I want to focus on just one. The original subtitle for the film was "A Parable," and it seems that the film is a parable about faith. What is faith? Is it blind stubbornness? Is it a fluid character where doubt and certainty are on such equal footing that one's faith may depend on the particular community they are in at the time? Is it something in between these two positions? That, in this author's opinion, is the central question of the film, and the answer seems to be that faith is something in between. It is the way of Sister James, mediating between the two positions. Sister James observes, seeks evidence, and weighs her experience in seeking the truth. The answer may seem overly rationalistic, but the filmmakers counter this by showing the danger of living without such a mediating presence, and that danger is obdurate overbearance.

In a word, Doubt is a commentary on the struggle between the modern and the postmodern, but the fascinating thing about the film is its call to live in the tension between these two forces. Though not a perfect film, Doubt is quite intriguing and is sure to provide much opportunity for discussion and contemplation.

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