Doubt the Movie



It is December, 1964. At St Nicholas Parish in the Bronx, Fr. Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) celebrates Mass. He is preaching about “doubt” and  Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the mother superior of the Sisters of Charity and principal of the school is in the congregation. She is not pleased with Fr. Flynn’s sermon. 

Sister James (Amy Adams) is a young sister in her first year of teaching. One of her students, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster)  is the only African-American student in the school. Fr. Flynn takes an interest in him. Donald is also an altar boy.

One day, Fr. Flynn calls Donald to the rectory. The boy acts strangely when he returns to class and Sr. James reports this to Sr. Aloysius. “And so it begins,” she says. She puts Fr. Flynn on notice that she is going to expose him. He is shocked at her insinuation that he has molested the boy. He demands evidence, but all she has is her “certainty.”

Sr. James is a young, inexperienced religious caught in the middle of a vortex: between Sr. Aloysius claims to certainty, the child, seeing Fr. Flynn sneak a piece of clothing into Donald’s locker, and her own insecurity and lack of life and faith experience. 


Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius in DOUBT

Sr. Aloysius tries to speak with Donald’s mother (Viola Davis). She wants her son to stay at St. Nicholas until the end of the year so he will be safe from public school bullies; she admits to being abused by her husband. She also demands proof.

I went to a screening of Doubt a few weeks ago. Afterwards, the writer/director John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck), Meryl Streep, Hoffman, Adams and Viola Davis came onstage and spoke about the film.

The acting in the film is superb; Shanley, Streep, Hoffman, Adams, and Davis, will all attract award notice

Shanley spoke about “doubt”  in broad terms; the certainty of the faith of his childhood,  and the place of doubt in human experience. He alluded to the certainty of these past several years in the U.S. (I took it to be a political reference; my companion at the screening disagreed; I was happy to read in Shanley’s introduction to the play that was just published, that he meant certainty in all aspects of life) and that doubt and the questions it prompts, can be a sign, the beginning, of wisdom.

Shanley, who adapted his play for the screen, has given us a parable rooted in the recent clergy abuse scandal that broke in 2002.  The film is definitely a statement against pedophilia. He also references domestic abuse and the unspeakable lengths that people go to so they can survive.

In the film Doubt no evidence is ever offered that would condemn Fr. Flynn, though his responses read like a checklist of the behavior of a pedophile (giving gifts, special attention to a child, isolating the child, and that piece of clothing…, etc.) No one even asks the child if something happened, though Fr. Flynn gives a plausible, but not necessarily ironclad, explanation. Is his confusion real? Is he guilty? Only you can decide, and maybe not even then.

The Sister James character, Shanley told the audience, is based on his own 1st grade teacher –  Sister Margaret McEntee, SC. Early on when Doubt was on the stage,  he was surprised to learn was still living.  The film is dedicated to her (as is the published version of the play) and he hired her to be a consultant to the film. I think she has done a wonderful job of presenting religious life just as Vatican II was ending. I entered my community in 1967, and everything in the film about convent life, from the small kindnesses to the hubris, is credible. After all, religious life is a microcosm of humanity, women struggling to be who we say we are: disciples of Jesus.

Is Fr. Flynn guilty? He could be; but he might not be. Perhaps he is just imprudent or dumb. Sr. Aloysius’ decision to go contrary to God to find the truth, as she explains to Sr. James, is morally troubling.  

Sr. Aloysius accuses Sr. James as wanting the security of simplicity again, like she had before this episode; yet I think Sr. Aloysius is speaking to herself, and to everyone who has ever doubted.

The atmosphere of the film is cold and stark: December in a frozen, urban landscape is bleak. The emotional, rational, spiritual state of doubt can be chilly: a dark night of the soul, the revelation or realization of doubt, that makes us take action and ask questions, that challenges the comfort of our certainty, is a cold, and at times, lonely journey.

As the writings of St. John of the Cross, St. Therese of the Child Jesus, and Mother Teresa attest, doubt happens, and however painful, can be a source of honesty and ultimately, spiritual growth.

Shanley uses the suspicion of very real clerical pedophilia as a way to explore the certainty of faith. As such, Doubt is a powerful film that will evoke questions and, hopefully, launch a thousand conversations about things that matter.


Please see for the review of the USCCB’s Office for Film and Broadcast.

For a copy of the Pultizer Prize for Drama play, go to:







 The following is the SIGNIS STATEMENT about the film Doubt, written by Rev. Peter Malone, MSH, who heads the film desk for SIGNIS. SIGNIS is the Vatican-approved international Catholic organization for communication:




2nd December 2008





Doubt is a film of strong Catholic interest. 


It can be viewed in the light of the current Church experience of sexual abuse by clergy.  However, this is not the central issue of the film.  Doubt is a film about Church structures, hierarchy, the exercise of power and the primacy of discipline and order.


Set in the autumn of 1964 in the Bronx, New York, the film focuses on the suspicions of the primary school principal, Sister Aloysius, that the local priest and chaplain to the school, Fr Flynn, is taking an unhealthy interest in one of the students, aged twelve.  There are some suggestions, several ambiguous clues, about what might have happened but the actual events remain unclear as the priest defends himself against the nun’ strong intuition against him and the nun discusses the problem with the boy’s mother.  As the title of the film indicates, the drama leaves the truth unclear because it is the stances of the two characters in conflict, especially the determined nun and the truth struggle, the power struggle, the conscience struggle, that is the point of the film.


John Patrick Shanley (Oscar for the screenplay for Moonstruck and a prolific playwright) has adapted and opened out  his Pulitzer-prize winning play for the screen and directed it himself.  Shanley has indicated that he is not so much concerned with the issue of clerical abuse of children as of pitting two characters against each other to highlight the uncertainties of certainty and the nature of doubt.  The drama is all the more powerful because of its naturalistic atmosphere, recreating the period and the life of the school, the convent and the rectory, and because of the powerful performances by Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Fr Flynn.  Amy Adams gives contrasting support as the gentle and somewhat naïve Sister James who teaches the children. Viola Davis is the mother of the boy.


It can be noted that the nun on whom the film’s Sister James was based and who taught Shanley at school in the Bronx has acted as a technical adviser.  The film, by contrast with so many others, represents the details of Church and liturgical life accurately – although there is a breviary in English, which was not the case in 1964, the children sing the Taize Ubi Caritas at Mass although it was composed later and Sister James is allowed to go to visit her sick brother which most nuns were not permitted to do at that time.  However, the film has a Catholic atmosphere which, while it might baffle audiences who were not there at the time, will ring true and bring back many memories to Catholics who lived through this strict period.


As with most organisations by the beginning of the 1960s, secular or religious, the Catholic Church was hierarchically structured.  Everyone knew their place, whether they liked it or not.  A pervading Gospel spirit of charity and service pervaded the Church but it was often exercised in a way that seemed harsh and demanding, especially by those who saw their authority being backed by a ‘grace of state’.  Many of those who left the Church in this era give anecdotes of the treatment they received from priests and nuns as reasons for their departure, even of their loss of faith.   When John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council in January 1959 and it opened on October 11th 1962, in his phrase, windows were opened, and change began to sweep through the Church.  This coincided with the changes, especially in Western society during the 1960s and the widespread protests symbolised by the Vietnam War and the hippy movement.  In fact, this was also the decade of enormous changes in Africa and the moves for independence.  Independence was a key word of the 1960s.


This is the theme that Doubt takes up. 


Sister Aloysius


Sister Aloysius, who, we learn, is a widow, is a strong-minded superior of the strict, intervening school of religious life.   She sees herself as an authority figure and what she says goes.  This was the spirituality of God’s will spoken through the Superior – though, in retrospect, this often seems more the whim of the superior.  She believes in discipline and she does not expect to be liked.  She trusts her intuitions and assumes that they are correct.  She does show some consideration to the health and mental states of the older sisters and has moments of kindness to Sister James but, the kind of Church and religious life she has inherited mean that she is constantly on the alert, wants proper order everywhere and sees herself in the chain of hierarchical authority that goes up via parish priest, bishop, to Rome and to the Holy Father.


Shanley is giving us an image of this kind of nun and her ethos and religious motivations.  At its best and worst this can be seen in Fred Zinneman’s The Nun’s Story (filmed in 1958 while Pius XII was still alive and the assumption was that this is how religious life would be forever) but released in 1959 after John XXIII had called the Council which asked for renewal in all religious orders.  Sister Aloysius is experiencing the first signs of a more transparent church, a church where a more adult obedience and discernment would replace any blind obedience and any childish exercise of power. A year after the story of Doubt, the Council would issue its Constitution on the Church which would respect hierarchy but interpret the life of the Church as that of the People of God, with the principles of subsidiarity and shared responsibility.


Fr Flynn


This kind of Church is what Fr Flynn is foreshadowing in the film.  It is not as if there were not friendly priests – Fr Bing Crosby received frowns from Fr Barry Fitzgerald in the 1944 Oscar-winner, Going My Way, for being too open and relaxed – and got into some trouble with the school principal, Ingrid Bergman, in The Bells of St Mary’s, both films being interesting companion pieces to Doubt.


At the opening of the film, Fr Flynn gives a sermon on experiencing doubts.  This cuts no ice with Sister Aloysius.  Fr Flynn is already on her hit list because of his friendliness towards the children in the school.  He coaches basketball.  He talks with the children and affirms them.  This kind of pastoral outreach was about to be encouraged by the Council’s document on priesthood.


The film also offers a contrast between the silent, rather ascetical meals in the convent with the jovial conversation and joking at the priests’ parish table.


Certainties and doubts


The confrontations between Sister Aloysius and Fr Flynn become quite desperate for Fr Flynn when he realises that the nun is so certain and dominating and has taken investigations into her own hands rather than respecting him as a person let alone a priest. We see the conflict between the old authoritarian style and the new, more personable style of interactions.  While Shanley himself states that he has some sympathy for the old ways, rituals, silence and devotion, his drama clearly shows the inadequacy of the authoritarian hierarchical model of Church in dealing with human relationships.  Something had to change.  And it did.


The sisters in the film are the Sisters of Charity founded in the 19th century by Elizabeth Bayley Seton,canonised a saint in 1975, and they are still wearing her dress/habit and bonnet.  Within the decade, that would change, sisters wearing a less formal habit or ordinary clothes with an emblem indicating their religious order.  Community life would be less rigid as would the relationships between the sisters.  There would be different relationships between the parish clergy and the sisters would worked in the parish.


Doubt offers an opportunity to look at the two models of Church and to assess their strengths and weaknesses, especially in the light of subsequent events and the nature and life of the Church at the present day.


The film wants to create doubts in the minds and emotions of the audience by contrasting the two styles of pastoral outreach, Sister Aloysius as stern, Fr Flynn as amiable.  As regards the doubts about Fr Flynn’s behaviour, contrasting clues are offered: Fr Flynn’s manner and friendliness with the boys, his singling out Donald for attention, Donald’s drinking the altar wine in the sacristy and Sister Aloysius’ conclusion that Fr Flynn had given it to him, Fr Flynn’s calling Donald out of class to the rectory and Sister James’ wariness about this.  On the other hand, Fr Flynn has explanations of Donald being the only African American boy in the school and the antipathy and bullying he received and wanting him to remain as an altar boy despite the offence which required his being dismissed as a server, his drinking the wine because of his father’s beating him because he suspected his homosexual orientation.  This is complicated by the conversation between Sister Aloysius and Donald’s mother whose sole concern, irrespective of what Fr Flynn might have done or not done and her husband’s violent treatment of Donald, is that Donald remain in the school for the next sixth months so that he will graduate and have the opportunity to go to a good high school.


Shanley’s images of Sister Aloysius at the end indicates that he believes we should all have doubts and not take the moral high ground of untested certainties.


[There are several films that take up this transition in the Church in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council.  At the time, there were some films about nuns handling the changes: The Trouble With Angels, Where Angels Go… Trouble Follows and Change of Habit.  The small-budget film, Impure Thoughts (1981) has some very funny scenes of reminiscences about sisters and prriests in a parish school of 1961; Heaven Help us (1985)is set in a Franciscan boy’s high school in 1965.  This was the year Paul VI went to New York and addressed the United Nations – an event which is part of the background of Polanski’s film of Rosemary’s Baby.  For a stronger focus on the changes for nuns at the time, the Australian mini-series, Brides of Christ, is probably the best.  A telemovie, starring Kate Mulgrew as Mother Seton,  about the founding of the Sisters of Charity is A Time for Miracles (1980).]




  1. Your review and the SIGNIS statement are great resources. I cannot wait to see the film.

  2. The movie left me feeling angry and cheated.

    First, neither of the main characters seemed to care about the welfare of the black child at the center of the controversy. Truth be told, Sr. Aloysius can hardly wait to be rid of him. Fr. Flynn is apparently too busy trying to save his own neck to think about the child he has taken under his wing and will shortly abandon. Of course, that would not be surprising if he was truly guilty of pedophilia. If he was innocent, his failure to put the child’s welfare first is moral cowardice. In either case, although much ambiquity remains, we can at least begin to fathom Fr. Flynn’s character and motivation.

    To me, Sr. Aloysius was the more enigmatic character. Knowing that the male hierarchy will protect one of their own and believing that the ends justify the means, she intends to destroy Fr. Flynn through the only weapon available to a woman of her time and place — a despicable whispering campaign of innuendo and gossip against which Fr. Flynn is defenseless.

    What was not clear to me was the depths from which that animosity springs. It can’t really be her professed concern for the welfare of the children. As I mentioned above, she barely endures the presence of the black student until he can be shuffled off to someone else. To her, he’s not a person in need of nurture (a nurture that she seems incapable of providing) but a burdensome duty, like the rest of the students, only more so because of her overt racism. Thus, her obliviousness to the boy’s real plight is contemptible. Even more so after the encounter with the boy’s mother, who eloquently explains his predicament. To Sr. Aloysius, the boy is simply a pawn of no consequence.

    In fact, Sr. Aloysius seems to be defined by an ethic of joyless self-discipline based on martyrtdom and suffering in which the world, far from being good, is a vale of tears. We are condemned to a life of work, denial and suffering in this life in preparation for the next — a view common to Catholics of that generation.

    We have only the vaguest idea about the forces that shaped her. She lost a husband killed during World War 2. It’s hard to guess what moved her to join the convent afterwords. We have no sense of her vocation, except for the possibility that the sturdy walls of the parish school represent the doctrinal certitude of the Church — a hermetic domain and refuge outside of which is a harsh, fallen world. What’s more, there is a suggestion of guilt buried deep, even hatred. In the final confrontation with Fr. Flynn he insists on his innocence and pleads for understanding, asking her if she’s ever sinned. This question seems to strike a nerve, suggesting some hidden remorse.

    Nonetheless, within the school walls, she is the warder who enforces and preserves that moral order. Thus, to her, Fr. Flynn becomes a dangerous intruder and a threat. Her anger does not come from a fierce desire to protect the boy, who might really have been violated, but from the challenge to her authority and control and the possibility of moral pollution — all of which Flynn represents. To her, the harm to the potential victim is quite beside the point, it’s the mere intrusion of Fr. Flynn that is the affront. With his easy sense of authority and entitlement, he’s an inviting target for her malice.

    Sr. Aloysius’s tormented admission of doubt at the end of the film seems to come out of thin air. Suddenly, that formidable facade of moral certainty gives way with no explanation, warning or motivation. There was no sense of an impending catharsis or any foreshadowing of an emergent self knowledge. Thus, this sudden upwelling of doubt seems gratuitous and unconvincing. What’s more, it’s an ambiguous admission. We never learn exactly what it is she doubts. Is she now simply uncertain about the truth of her accusation or does it go deeper? Does she now question the moral certainties that she has professed all those years? Besides all that, does she now feel remorse for the boy whose welfare she was indifferent to? After all, she was perfectly willing to jeopardize that welfare for her own ends.

    Although Shanley has made it clear in various interviews that the final resolution of the play is intentionally left to each member of the audience, I was still left with the feeling that the playwright had copped out by abruptly throwing this resolution over the wall. An admission of doubt, no matter how tortured, is simpy not enough. One critic said, rightly I think, that the play ends where it should have begun.

    Incidentally, anyone wishing to see a truly great movie about a similar clash of wills and struggle for power is advised to rent or purchase “Tunes of Glory”, with Alec Guinness and John Mills.

  3. Hey, I think you missed the point.
    Hoffman played it just right. Flynn was a baby raper. Didn’t he see the way he talked about Love and compassion in that slick as grease way to a doe eyed sister without EVER addressing why that kid came down from the priest office after missing TWO whole periods of class with the smell of wine on his breath? Why would he have the boy’s t shirt anyway? And why was that kid with the bloody nose smoking the same cigarettes as the priest? Is that why he smirked when the priest was giving his goodbye speech? Is that also why he deliberately stomped on the Black kid’s stuff in the hallway, because he knew what was going on between the priest and the boy?
    All of that rubbish he gave Sister James was a smokescreen for his predatory ways.
    The cigarettes were a bribe for the kid to keep his mouth shut.

    Also let’s look at the way he raged at Sister Al for calling behind his back. Sister Al didn’t tell anyone but Sister James about her direct suspicions. There is NOTHING despicable about trapping someone into admitting their wrong doing towards a child. He fell for it because he was guilty. There are worse sins than gossip. Jesus didn’t say that a millstone should be tied around the neck of a gossip. That’s for people who hurt kids. Too bad Flynn didn’t preach on that!

    The reason Sister Al cries about having doubts is based upon the way the Church handled everything. She goes after a man trying to rape kids. He gets a promotion. THAT’s what creates her doubts, not whether Father Flynn was really guilty. She wonders whether her own Church has betrayed her.

    And I totally disagree with your assertion that she didn’t like Donald. She was appalled at the mother not wanting to protect her son from a father who beat him and a priest who raped him. Didn’t you see the look on her face? That’s not a woman trying to use a child as a pawn, that’s a woman who can’t get why a MOTHER would endure that kind of abuse to her own child. If she didn’t care about Donald she would have said, “oh, well it’s just a N word child” and allowed him to be raped.

    This woman put her Faith, her career and her whole life on the line for that Black kid whom you say she didn’t care about. I would rather have a teacher who was strict and protected me than all the Father Flynns with their manipulative ways and Sister James with their airy fairy brand of weak kneed compassion. I knew nuns like Sister Al and they were worth their weight in gold. God bless each and every one of them. I hope they hung in there regardless of the Father Flynns of this world.

  4. I saw Doubt in more simple terms. Perhaps it is the English major in me that screams symbolism. How about this for an explanation: Hearken back to the story of Christ. He came, not just for the righteous, but for the fallen as well. Remember his disdain for the Pharisees who believed that their adherence to the letter of the law (while ignoring the spirit of the law) was what God demanded of them. Remember that it was the Pharisees who held the positions of power and it was they who intimidated the common people. As long as what mattered was an interpretation as to whether one followed the actual law, their power was absolute. Over and over again Christ through his parables and his life demonstrated that this was intolerable.

    So, how about seeing Sister Al as a Pharisee, an intolerant power mogul who, while familiar with the letter of the law, wouldn’t recognize the spirit of the law if it bit her on her nose.

    And Father Flynn. Could he not be seen as a Christ figure, Immanuel, God among us, who saw a lonely, pained black kid and wanted nothing more than to demonstrate God’s love, Christ’s love to him. Why not take him at his word? Why does the placement of the shirt in the locker have to mean anything more than what Father Flynn averred: to wit, that he did not wish to cause the child any more embarrassment. Middle school kids can be quite cruel and intolerant.

    There are many examples of the use of light and darkness throughout this magnificent movie. Who kept opening Sister Al’s window and what is the significance of the act.

    If we people of faith somehow allow the kind acts of a man who professes to follow Christ and in fact be one of his disciples be interpreted as evil, then how much have we in fact changed since the days when Jesus was wrongly charged?

    In conclusion, let us remember that just as Christ died for the sins of the world and received his reward afterwards. Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father and he rules with Glory. Father Flynn, in refusing to allow the child to be the subject of this vile accusation and subsequent investigation, gracefully accepted the fact that people would gossip, that his reputation would be damaged. Despite that certainty, despite that there was no DOUBT about that, he resigned from his parish because doing so protected the child. Perhaps our Father in Heaven was smiling down upon him as he was named Pastor of a new church, in effect receiving a promotion.

    We are human. We can watch the same movie and come to different conclusions. Trimelda has no doubt. I, too, have no doubt. Christ loving children no more made him a pedophile than did Father Flynn’s love for kids.

  5. The reason Sister Al cries about having doubts is based upon the way the Church handled everything. She goes after a man trying to rape kids. He gets a promotion. THAT’s what creates her doubts, not whether Father Flynn was really guilty. She wonders whether her own Church has betrayed her.

    For that to work, her sudden disillusionment with the hierarchy would have had to result from some revelation during the film. In that regard, Sr. Aloyosius struck me as quite cynical at the outset regarding the hierarchy’s old boy’s club. She’s no shrinking violet. She knew before she confronted Fr. Flynn that he’d be protected. That’s why she threatened to start a whispering campaign rather than take the matter up with his superiors. His promotion should have come as no suprise. If anything, it should have validated her cynicism.

    This woman put her Faith, her career and her whole life on the line for that Black kid whom you say she didn’t care about.

    Well, not exactly. Her career was never in jeopardy. In fact, she acted to insure that there was never in any real possibility that she might be made to answer for the truth of her allegations. That’s what makes whispering campaigns so effective (and so despicable). No, this was a power struggle — pure and simple (In a manner of speaking).. Remember the image of all those feathers flying through the air? Where did they come from? Anyhow, to excuse Sr. Aloysius’s conduct is to believe that the ends justify the means.

    As to her attitude towards Donald, I recall at least once during the film, where she speaks with a tone and expression of distaste about at least getting him through the school year, after which he’d be someone else’s problem. I also remember the scene during the Christmas pageant preparation in which some mildly racist remark is made wondering how Donald will “fit in”. What’s more at no time does she intervene to protect him from the overt abuse and bullying that goes on in the hallway (and that she’s well aware of).

    Life is an uphill struggle for Donald that he may not survive. Yes, Fr. Flynn may be as predatory as you say, nonetheless, the boy has a real need for compassion and nurturing that Sr. Aloysius is unable or unwilling to respond to. He needs more than “benign neglect”. Imagine the world from Donald’s perspective — beaten by his father, possibly preyed upon by the priest and bullied by classmates. In view of that, Sr. Aloysius insensitivity, disregard and thinly veiled dislike for this boy are an outward sign of how spiritually barren her character is. There’s got to be more to spirituality than the retribution for sin and self-denial her character represents. If there was any trace of caritas or joy in the character, it was well hidden.

  6. Incidentally, the play toured in the LA and San Diego areas not so long ago. So, if anyone has seen it with Cherry Jones as Sr. Aloysius, I’d be interested in a comparison between the two works. Commonweal praised ithe play highly, citing Ms. Jones portrayal as “tough but caring”.My take is it got a much better critical reception than the film.

    I think for the piece to work, we have to like both characters. As it is, I liked neither.

  7. Hamlet:
    I’ll have grounds
    More relative than this—the play’s the thing
    Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.

    Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 603–605

    “Doubt” is about doubt. The play/film is about something intangible and existential; the characters are the means by we get to explore “doubt”, to exercise our human, moral, spiritual theological, and if you will, ecclesial, imagination. I certainly didn’t like the characters but I admired the performances; I empathized with being wrongly accused; I remembered what it was like in religious life in 1967 when I entered. I don’t think we were supposed to “like” these characters; there is little to admire because they are imperfect. Instead, maybe we can empathize with them, walk in the shoes of their flawed humanity. Shanley’s parable only works if it evokes the memory of some kind of shared experience with the audience.

    The good thing is, no one is required to like a movie or a play. As independent, critical thinkers, we can make our own judgments. The richness comes from conversing (dialogue-respect) about our perspectives. I, for one, love this part.

    It seems the play was better than the film; I don’t know because I didn’t see the play. (I bought the play at Barnes & Noble but haven’t read it yet.) These kinds of comparisons are useful. But, “the play’s the thing” where in we can all take a look at, spark and inform our consciences (or “consciousness” as Ignatius would put it), personal and collective.

  8. Yes, I understand that “Doubt” refers to doubts experienced by the audience (the intended jury) as well as any doubt shown by the characters.

    It isn’t the fact that I don’t like the characters or that they’re imperfect, but that I could not find any reasons to care about what happens to them.

    Fr. Flynn came across as weak and a bit of a voluptuary. Was he guilty as charged? Who knows. Sr. A, forces him out but he seems to land on his feet. Clearly, she could not have done more. If he is truly innocent, he has apparently not suffered. If he is guilty, his guilt is on the head of the chancery, who chose to ignore the signs. The tragedy is the other lives he may ruin.

    Sr. A is a tough disciplinarian but without a trace of compassion and with more than a bit of cruelty in the character. I was in a parochial grade school back then. Sure, for better or worse, it was common practice to administer a whack on the head to recalcitrant students but telling Miss “*HOR*an”, a 12-year old girl, to remove the hairpin, for example, is an unforgivable bit of humiliation. That, along with my previous issues about her racism and callousness towards Donald, made it hard for me to feel empathy for such a character.

    The only other possibility is her realization that the threatened calumny may have been unjust in and of itself and motivated by less than noble reasons. In other words, the doubt in the moral certaintly that led her to “step away from God”. If so, perhaps that doubt is the beginning of wisdom, as Fr. Flynn said in his opening sermon.

    In any event, for Doubt to have meaning, it has to be doubt *about* something of consequence. The movie ends just when we might have found out what that was.

  9. Thanks for your reply…

    Your reflection seems to be exactly what the writer intended… to get us talking.

    Two of our nuns went to see the film yesterday and they had some interesting insights, though they didn’t much”like” the characters either. I will see if I can get them to comment here…

    Thanks again

  10. I guess much of my frustration with this film comes from disappointment. The film had a dream cast and an author who must have had total creative control. I too hope others will comment.

  11. Do you think that something is lost when a stage play is interpreted for film? Someone told me that on stage Flynn and Sr A were magnificent; their sparring was brilliant. I think I was hoping for more of the live theater experience. Here there were pauses or spaces needed for film but the continuity in a play might have made it a tighter and better experience. As for the meaning of the film…

  12. I agree. Oh how I wish I’d seen the play!

    The stage giives the actors far more room to shape the characters in many ways. Not to mention the fact that the actors can add nuance to the characterization with each performance.

    My guess is that Shanley’s touches actually hurt the adaptation. What might have been better left to the audience’s imagination becomes cast in concete.

    I will say that the recreation of the Catholic milieu seemed creepily accurate to me, complete with pews filled with docile parishoners. I almost jumped out my seat at the sound of those sacristy bells (believe me, that would have been quite a sight!).

    By the way, the folks on the Commonweal blog seemed to find Sr. A’s epiphany quite powerful and credible. As you say, it is existential. To me, it’s still a frustrating conundrum. I was reminded of Hazel Motes’s epiphany at the end of “Wise Blood”. There, the mystery was palpable and, for some reason, quite believable. I guess I could see the preparation for grace and redemption from the very beginning of the film.

  13. ….of course Hazel Motes was clearly “Christ haunted” at the outset.

  14. Oh, so let’s talk about “Christ-haunted”… a real link to Flannery O’Connor. Have you seen/read the book “Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South”? by R. Wood? It would be interesting to compare his thesis with ‘doubt” and the character of Hazel Motes.

  15. Yes. I have a copy. I like it a lot. Wood is a wise and perceptive critic — in spite of his tendency to drift too far into preachment at times.

    Wood’s thesis, as far as I can tell, is given explicitely (on pp 123 in my copy), when he says: “…The South, while bearing the greatest historical guilt of any American region, offers the nation its largest religious hope.” Wood sees O’Connor ‘s work and life as an instrument of that hope.

    In any event, there’s no mystery about what happened to Motes. As his grandfather foretold with prophetic certainty: “That boy had been redeemed and Jesus wasn’t going to leave him ever…Jesus would have him in the end.”

    Redemption in O’Connnor’s works is always the result of an unmediated encounter with the divine. O’Conner was definitely a Catholic of the Protestant kind (in a manner of speaking).

  16. PS:

    What do I mean when I say there’s no mystery about Motes’s sudden epiphany?

    Motes preached nihilism and was guilty of murder (among other things). Although we can’t see into the depths of his person, we can see the ways in which he was ripe for it to occur. The jalopy, the dilapidated “escape vehicle” of his nihilism, breaks down and the Jesus he had been running from all his life finally catches up with him. The exact workings of grace is always a mystery but, in this case, the basis for its occurrence is undeniable.

    It’s easy to see the need for grace among the depraved or sinful — or anyone else who is obviously grace-starved. What’s hard (at least for me) is to see the signs of starvation among the devout, whose faith appears strong.

    In that regard, I thoght Sr. A’s “habit” had an interesting symbolic significance. To me, it seemed to form a kind of carapace or shell against the outer world — almost like that of a turtle — a garb intended to conceal as well as protect. All of the sudden, a crack in that armor appears and I don’t know why.

  17. There are no conditions or limits to when a person, in real life, can crack, enter into a de profundis moment, and then begin to ascend, to respond to grace.

    The problem in Doubt, perhaps, maybe the dramatic timing, or lack thereof. Her descent (falling apart) was a little jarring; time had passed because Sister J had been away. But the lapse didn’t “show” enough in the film. But think: if she finally realized the great wrong she had done by lying, and then began to understand why she had done what she did. This whole thing then becomes about her, doesn’t it? Her flaws, her weaknesses, her response to grace.

    Pride does not discriminate; nor does grace, or the spiritual journey if one is willing to embark upon it. The greater question might be: what will she do next?

  18. There are no conditions or limits to when a person, in real life, can crack, enter into a de profundis moment, and then begin to ascend, to respond to grace.

    Yes, that may be life but here I think it’s bad art. It’s occurrence in the play strikes me as a kind of deux ex machina — a cheap way of forcing the audience to do too much of the author’s work. I have never seen a situation in life or art in which a character of such moral certainty spontaneously renounced that certainty for no apparent reason — especially after winning a victory which seemingly validated all her moral judgements.

    But think: if she finally realized the great wrong she had done by lying, and then began to understand why she had done what she did. This whole thing then becomes about her, doesn’t it? Her flaws, her weaknesses, her response to grace.

    That;s true, but to me that realization should have shown up as remorse, not doubt. Doubt is the beginning of a journey that ends in remorse.

  19. You may be quite right…. making us do the writers work. I can see that…

  20. I find the discussions I’ve read around this movie rather off point. I was raised Roman Catholic and taught by the Dominicans. That’s all I’ll say on all that as my experiences were all positive. I think the movie gives us a glimpse into the slow erupting implosion and chaos that eventually wiped out these American(Western) reliigous communities and even more importantly, regarding the movie, might just show a woman whose doubts were based on prudent suspicion of something that had been going on and beyond her ability to stop because of the hierarchy’s blindness at the time. That implosion(the church’s sexual abuse scandal) was kept under wraps for almost 50 years because of a combination of the dereliction of those in charge and the aftermath of the disintegration of any structure within the religous communities as well as the demise of the Catholic education system in this country. On all accounts the church has only itself to blame whether it be the misinterpretation of the Second Vatican Council or the willful ignorance of the abuses both sexual and clerical. All good Catholics must now pick up the pieces that we are left with and rebuild and not let abuse in any form go unnoticed. This movie obviously inspired me and brought up a whole array of feelings with regard to the state of the church in the USA.

  21. …might just show a woman whose doubts were based on prudent suspicion of something that had been going on and beyond her ability to stop because of the hierarchy’s blindness at the time

    But Sr. A did succeed in stopping it. What’s more, she was under no illusions about the hierarchy’s venality.

    By the way, the incident of Fr. Flynn’s furtive return of the boy’s shirt was not in the play nor were a lot of other incriminating pieces of business, like the grim expresiions on the altar boys’ faces, the dinner scenes etc. All this makes me think the play succeeded because of fine acting and direction and in spite of the author.

  22. To anyone still reading this thread, there is a lovely series of 21 great Magnum photos of Catholic schools and nuns at:

    A few of these from the 50’s and 60’s capture the texture of life in a parochial elementary school back then (at least as I as I recall it). What’s tangible for me in these photos is the sense of order and structure and the manifest care shown by the nuns.

  23. I watched doubt on it wasn’t that good. I wouldn’t recomend this movie at all, but theres other great movies on

  24. Interesting. I think giving people access to a new film this way is pretty illegal…. I just went to the site to check it and sure enough, the whole film can be downloaded.

    At any rate, why didn’t you like DOUBT? Why wouldn’t you recommend it?

  25. Sister;
    thanks for the link to the pics! One of the women was a Dominican and I was taught by them on Taiwan in grammar.Another of a teacher from sepulveda ,Ca looks like a SSNJM who I was also taught by in Ca prior to moving overseas in the 4th grade. They have since virtually dissapeared. My question though is : Isn’t the first pic a woman who belongs to your own community? Yes, those websites are for the most part illegal.
    Mr Manetti:
    Did she really stop it or just become another cog in the wheel that pushed him onto more freedom as a pastor in his next assignment and open up a space for possibly another man just like him?

  26. Did she really stop it or just become another cog in the wheel that pushed him onto more freedom as a pastor in his next assignment and open up a space for possibly another man just like him?

    If you’re implying that her doubt arose from her perception that what she did was futile, I’m not persuaded.

    She must have been aware that she had accomplished all that was within her power. She seemed pretty world-wise to me so I assume she realized and accepted the fact that all human actions may have unanticipated and unavoidable side effects. The child that is saved from drowning may turn out to be the next Adolf Hitler. Nonetheless, when a life is in peril, we have no choice but to save it if we can.

  27. well of course the interpretation of the movie is always subjective and my take on her doubt was not as simplified as yours. i think her doubt arose from the chaos brewing at the time and what her place in it all would come to be. giving such deep renderings as you do to an artistic piece is not my forte.

  28. Thank you for sharing your insight. I was only wondering “why” you didn’t like the film and you explained a perspective, although I am still not sure why you didn’t care for the film… that’s all I was wondering. The “why”.

  29. i think her doubt arose from the chaos brewing at the time and what her place in it all would come to be.

    It could be just that straightforward.

  30. Closing credits were given to a Sr. James. Is she a real person (nun)? What connection does she have to film?

  31. Yes, she is Sister Margaret McAtee, SC, formerly known as Sr. Mary James. She taught John Patrick Shanley in the 1st grade and he never forgot her. If you scroll down in this blog to Catholics in Media Awards or CIMA, you can see Sr Peggy (as she is called) who came to LA to accept the award for Shanley. You can also “google” her and find a lot of press. There is an entry in the blog with a link to a very nice article that appeared in VARIETY in January, I think.

  32. I absolutely and totally agree with you. The fact the priest was promoted – given the questionable circumstances, just being questionable should have been enough to remove him from the children. Str Al was questioning her whole life, her inner essence. I imaging he saying to herself ” God, what is the shit!” Goodness should prevail. But, there is the powers that be priest, bishop, all the way up. Just look at the difference in the lives of the priests and the nuns (depicted at the dinner table-I’m sure in continued in all areas of their daily lives).

    I am not catholic and I don’t know the significance of Str. Al’s cross at the end of the movie. I wish I did. The cross was so pointed out at the beginning of the movie as she was dressing and at other times too. It was definitely silver. At the end of the movie – last scene – it showed a glimpse of her croses (which seemed to me she was trying to hide it from Str James) it was turquoise and she preceded to tuck it in her habit.

    I rented the movie at home – alone – and couldn’t absorb it enough the first time – so I played it again and paid more attention to details. Still needed to see it again. I’m left wanting to know if she had been demoted for trying to do the right thing. I will be renting it again.

    But, I am with you all the way, Antonio, in his comments didn’t even mention the pack of cigarettes OR the mentioning of “wearung his fingernails a little long”. And yes, I believe the cigarette boy bumped Donald for that very reason – he knew what was going on.

    I believe this movie to be one of the deepest movies I have ever viewed. I have my certainties and I have my doubts. I also believe that my God is a fair and just God. There is no doubt in that statement.

  33. II found all the above comments interesting. I love film as an art form (not so much as entertainment – since Hollywood is so devoid of any moral compass anymore) and love discussions like these. This film left me feeling quiet empty and unsatisfied, almost like I had wasted my time. I realized that was the intention of the filmmakers.

    I found the contrasts between the nuns and the priests interesting as well as the use of light and dark and symbols like the cigarettes and the toy that was stepped on later by a troubled boy the priest likely use to pay more attention to. I could not get the fingernail thing, except to possibly brandish him as quiet an odd duck

    The only character in the film I remotely liked was Donald. Sister A. was devoid of compassion, Father Flynn was too conniving and odd and Sister James was far too aloof. I think it is important to view this film in the context of 1964 as well, not making judgments from 2009 (this is why I liked the movie “The Reader” – though I wish it wasn’t so pornographically explicit).

    It is interesting that I was about the age of those boys in the movie during that time and was a product of Catholic grade school. I was an alter boy. I was picked on in school, owing to my very small size and my low self esteem.

    I was the oldest of 7 children, with an extremely abusive father and an emotionally vacant mother. I was beaten unmercifully every night when my father got home from work. There were nights I went to bed before he got home, hoping to fall asleep, to gain a night’s reprieve, but even then, I generally was ripped from my slumber and beaten.

    School wasn’t much better, being the smallest kid in the class. I was a target for bullies. I never backed down from a fight, but I don’t remember landing many punches, but I remember having my head mashed by kids trained in the marshal arts. The teachers just laughed and when I came home looking like I had been put threw a meat grinder, I just got beat for being soft.

    The only place I found solace was the church. I liked being an alter boy and I liked the attention the priest gave me. I was the perfect and completely safe target for a pedophile.

    I was sexually abused by a priest for a period of 8 years. It was not mere fondling, but some pretty heavy duty sexual activity. Alcohol was involved as was pornography, both magazines and films.

    I could understand the boy’s mom’s response as well as the dad’s. I could see the profile fit so perfectly and I think that was precisely the filmmaker’s intent. They went to great lengths to make the profile fit. As imperfect as Sister A. was, the only real emotion I felt during this film was one of longing… longing that I had a Sister A. back then. Somehow even today, it would be nice to feel validated, that I was important, that I am important, that what happened was wrong.

    When I finally told my parents, at the age of 28, my dad was so enraged by my confession that he physically picked me up and threw me out the front door of their house and yelled for all the neighborhood to hear: “IF that happened, IT WAS YOUR FAULT, and I never want to see your f****** face around here again.” Of course, none of my siblings believe it happened to this day, because they all reason that a parent would never do that to an offspring unless they were sure they were lying.

    I have often wondered why my parents didn’t have any “doubt” or later any remorse for what they did to me at the age of 28 (even after they later left the Catholic Church and are now going nowhere) and what they did and didn’t do when I was 8 years old.

  34. I am playing Sister A in Doubt in a production at a local university. I have seen the movie. I feel the movie added scenes not in the play that can lead the viewer toward seeing Father Flynn as guilty. It can take away that sense of Doubt. I did like in the film that once the accusation is made there are scenes with the camera off kilter. It gives the viewer a physical feeling of being out of sync as are the characters.

    When I first read the play, I didn’t like the ending. I thought it too abrupt. Now, after spending many hours memorizing lines and working with the character, I like the ending. I think Sister A’s Doubts are not at all about her accusations. I don’t think she ever Doubts Father Flynn’s guilt. I think she is disillusioned with the life she chose, and now the rules changed, (Vatican II), the hierarchy of the church protects a possible abuser but she is forced to sin to bring the problem to light, and in the end, she only caused him to be allowed more access to children and now she can’t watch him. I’m not saying Sr. A is right, she is flawed. I also think the abruptness of the ending was really not so abrupt. Could it not be that she, like all of us at times, have Doubts all along, but cover them with certainty? Why does she need to control so much of everything. Control vs uncertainty

    Every night at rehearsal we end up in discussions like those on this blog. There is no easy answer. The author has done his work, he has sparked emotion and left us with uncertainty and we are not comfortable wearing that. We try to make sense of it, and the truth is, there are things in life that we can never make sense of. The human brain likes order.

    Another comment on the play vs. movie. In the play, sister A doesn’t say that they must get Donald through and out the door and then he is someone else’ project. She says that about another character. In the play, in the scene in the garden, Sister James actually says that Sister A. is trying to protect the boy. Our director suggested that the threat to throw Donald out when the mother visits could be to protect Donald since his mother won’t. I had not thought of that. I thought it was a threat to the mother. So see, a different view, with a different meaning.

    I actually have the easiest character to play. She has no Doubt to his guilt. Father Flynn has it tough. He has to play the ambiguity so as not to lead the audience. And Sister James? hmmm is that evil’s battle for the soul in the guise of two religious people looking for power?

    It is thought provoking, and even if someone hated the play or movie, the author was able to trigger strong emotion.-the point of art.

  35. Meg:

    Thanks for posting and your insights. ‘Break a leg.”

    I take it the university is somewhere in the LA area. I live near SF, otherwise I’d love to see it. I read the play, but without the actors and staging to breath life into it, it’s an empty shell.

  36. Antonio:
    Actually, the university is in northwestern Wisconsin- a bit far for you to come and see the show.

    I came across this web site in my search of all things Doubt!

    Thanks for your post.

  37. I think the way that both of you are looking at this is ignorant. You only see what society has taught you to see and you are not smart enough to realize both sides. Sure, you can say that he molested the child. And that Sister A cried for having doubts about the church and it’s male comradery. Look at it from both sides. That black kid’s father would have killed him for being molested as he already thinks his child has homosexual tendencies from drinking wine. Father Flynn wanted to protect him from that and a further investigation into it would have meant possible certain death for the child. And that the kid smiles as the end, not because the father has left so that he would no longer get molested, but so that he can continue to pick on the black kid. The movie is meant to make you think, not to make you guess. You should always question your own doubts until you have complete truth and facts to back up harsh statements. Go back and watch it and go into it with an unbiased opinion and you will see both sides. Speculation vs Adulation. New church vs. Old church. I think anyone that picks one way to read this movie did not understand it at all. On a side note, I do believe the other alter boy was molested by Father Flynn, and I believe that is another point the movie was trying to make. Sometimes, while things are not always what they seem, other things can get lost and pushed aside. Oh well. I enjoyed the movie. To each their own I suppose

  38. I appreciate the very thoughtful review, Sister Rose, and also making the SIGNIS Statement available. I do not happen to be of the Catholic faith, but I would like to note that this film is of absorbing interest to people of other, or even uncertain, faith – all thoughtful and caring people.

    This story and its realization in the movie have affected me deeply. I have been studying it quite a lot lately. The final scene is so stunningly revealed that it always makes me sob uncontrollably. The only other movie that does that to me is Proof, only in that case it is from start to finish.

    I have a somewhat different take than I believe most do. To me, there is never, to the very end, the slightest shadow of doubt in Sister Aloysius’ heart and intellect that Father Flynn was guilty of transgressions. As she says, compelling as the crack of doom, the Father’s resignation was his confession.

    Sister Aloysius develops enough doubt to go around otherwise, though – doubts of her faith, the Church, society, and humanity. Such is her crushing burden she suddenly shares with Sister James.

    This is my other departure from most people’s feelings. I see Sister Aloysius as a solemnly steadfast and feeling servant of the Church and of humanity. She is a strong and strict woman (though not superhumanly so, we learn). I do not recoil from this character, as so many do.

  39. You have got to be kidding!!!!

  40. What?

  41. I do not think God would be smiling down on a pedophile! Are you sure you watched the movie?

  42. Great film. What year did the film take place? The “windows opening up” in Sr. Aloysius’ office. The light going out whenever the priest came into her office. The priest/nun conversation about sugar in the tea. The usage of St. Pious XII in the classroom to look behind to maintain order (utilizing Tradition). The priest, at the end of the movie, going into the pews during his homily – common nowadays in “Community Catholic Churches” where the focus is on community rather than salvation. I can go on forever. This was a very tight script/direction where the director quite clearly is very familiar with the problems with the Catholic Church. The molestations are the symptoms of those problems. By their fruits, you will know them…

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