Reports of corruption, abuse and the exploitation of innocent victims have put religious leaders on the defensive, even if the offenders represent only a minuscule minority of the clergy. Still, with the seeds of uncertainty planted, it is increasingly easier for distrust to sprout among parishioners and non-parishioners alike. In Doubt, reservations even flourish among the ordained leaders themselves, leading to a crisis of faith.
Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a jovial, gregarious priest who doesn’t sequester himself to the rostrum in the old cathedral where he presides. Rather, he mingles with his congregation and the students at St. Nicholas in the Bronx. He embraces many of the positive societal changes of the 1960s and is eager to make the school a more engaging educational environment. The dinner table in the priests’ quarters is flush with good food, music, laughter and liquor.
In sharp contrast, dinner in the nuns’ residence, overseen by Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), is a somber, silent occasion. Serving as principal of the school, the aloof nun believes in strict obedience, swift punishment and enforced atonement for sin. Her role, as she sees it, is guardian of morality and protector of the young charges in her care.
It is easy to understand why tensions would build between these two opposing approaches to religious training and education. However, Sister Aloysius finally has reason to feel vindicated in her negative judgment of the priest when Sister James (Amy Adams), a young teacher at the school, confesses her discomfort with the extra attention Father Flynn awards to a new Black student in her class. While Donald Miller’s (Joseph Foster) transition to the all-White institution hasn’t been an easy one, Sister James suspects there is more than friendship being offered to the struggling boy when the affable priest calls Donald to his office for a private meeting.
Although Sister James’ confession comes without a shred of hard evidence, it ignites a campaign by Sister Aloysius to remove Father Flynn from her school and possibly the priesthood. Unfortunately, the battle between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius spills out of their cloistered offices and into the hallways and homes of the students, causing mental and emotional distress for the parish’s families as well.
Meryl Streep (who also played the free-spirited Donna Sheridan in this year’s Mamma Mia!), shows her range as an actress as she tackles the role of Sister Aloysius, a woman tortured by her zeal to purge the offending priest from her school even if it means facing the fury of the church’s hierarchy. The script, which contains only the brief use of profanities and infrequent depictions of alcohol and cigarette use by adults and minors, concentrates instead on unsubstantiated activities that may be disturbing, especially for teens or children.
Pitting faith against suspicion, and mercy for the sinner against justice for the injured, Doubt explores the uncertainty and fears that can arise when power is abused and evidence becomes inessential. When the credits roll, there is little doubt that audiences will still be left grasping for the truth.