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A Time For Uncertainty: A Review of “Doubt” – 2008

Doubt and certainty. These two have been at war with each other as long as humans have been discussing religion and faith. Many Christians see doubt as the enemy of belief and faith and do everything they can to eradicate it. Someone once wrote that “doubt digs the grave of faith.”
Frederick William Faber wrote:
“For right is right, since God is God,/ And right the day must win;/ To doubt would be disloyalty,/ To falter would be sin.”
Others see doubt as a necessary part of faith and growth in understanding. Robert Browning believed that the person “who knows most, doubts most.” And Rene Descartes, in his Principles of Philosophy, argued that
“if you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.”
At the very beginning of John Patrick Shanley’s 2008 film, Doubt, Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) preaches a sermon to his congregation in which he asks the question, “What do you do when you’re not sure?”
There are two answers to this question. You could acknowledge doubt, exploring it as best you can, accept that there may be things we can never know, and live with the ambiguity that so often is a characteristic of human life. Or you could retreat into a dogmatic certainty, suppressing any doubts, and act forcefully to live as though your understanding is the absolute truth — sometimes wreaking great evil in the process. This choice between certainty and doubt is a central theme of the film. And what a profound movie it is!
Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the parish priest of St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx during the autumn of 1964 just after Vatican II, which called for priests to see themselves as ‘part of the family’ of their parishioners.
St. Nicholas’ principal, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), is an old-school nun who commands the respect of her staff and students through fear. She is ruthless and rigid. Sister James (Amy Adams), a new teacher at St Nicholas, wants to motivate her students to learn because learning can be exciting and liberating. Sister James is innocent and naïve, and struggles to adapt to the governance of Sister Aloysius, often feeling troubled by the principal’s approach to disciplining students.
Donald Miller (Joseph Foster) is the school’s first black student. Sister Aloysius begins to suspect that Father Flynn is taking an inappropriate interest in Donald. Her response is swift and ruthless. Sister James is caught up in Sister Aloysius’s campaign when she is recruited to keep an eye on Father Flynn and report any suspicious behaviour she might witness.
The problem with Sister Aloysius’ conclusion is that the evidence is ambiguous. However, that does not deter Sister Aloysius, who is totally convinced of Father Flynn’s guilt. So the story becomes a battle between doubt and certainty as the fate of Father Flynn depends on the outcome.
Doubt is an absolutely brilliant film for a number of reasons. Firstly, Shanley, the writer and director, sustains ambiguity throughout the story, forcing us as viewers to come to our own conclusions about what is happening. As the narrative progresses, we must consider new information and perspectives and grapple with doubt and certainty in our own thinking.
Secondly, Shanley has refused to cave in to the predictability of most Hollywood endings. Those who must have a satisfying resolution to all their stories may (will?) be disappointed. This is cinema at its best — it treats us as intelligent. To watch this movie is to be forced to think for ourselves about the issues and consider our own relationship to doubt.
Thirdly, there are the actors. Meryl Streep is superb as Sister Aloysius. She inhabits her role to such an extent that we forget that it is Meryl Streep. And Philip Seymour Hoffman could not have been better in portraying Father Flynn. The occasions we see these two great actors on the screen together are tense and electrifying. And Amy Adams, Joseph Foster, and Viola Davis (who plays Donald Miller’s mother) offer us subtle and powerful performances.
Doubt is the most thoughtful movie of 2008. Its provocative portrayal of doubt and the potential evil of certainty is timely, penetrating, and deeply provocative. Doubt is a must-see movie — and I am completely certain about that!
Positive Review
‘An intellectually and emotionally exhausting and engrossing experience. It is drama of the highest caliber.’ – James Berardinelli/ReelViews
Negative Review
‘Streep can do anything. She is, of course, wasted on this elephantine fable; if only Doubt had been made in 1964, shot by Roger Corman over a long weekend, and retitled “Spawn of the Devil Witch” or “Blood Wimple,” all would have been forgiven.’ – Anthony Lane/The New Yorker
Content Advice
Thematic material
USA: PG-13
Steve Parker reviews movies and books and comments on things of interest to Christians who are thoughtful about their faith on his blog, Thinking Christian, where this review was first published. He writes from Adelaide, Australia.

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