i don’t see anyone having posted on this (did i miss it? i don’t think so), and since it’s replete with Themes that Interest Me, i’ll give it a couple of lines. simon and i agreed it wasn’t a good movie, mostly because it was the development of a thesis, not a movie. but the thesis is interesting, and the topic in general is interesting, and philip seymour hoffman is genuinely great. i think the playwright wanted to address the sex abuse scandal in a dramatic/theological light, bringing both psychological and religious complexity to it. i don’t know. i haven’t read the play. have you, jeff? but the filmmaker surely did, and i am thrilled by this, because this is one of those social phenomena that get shamelessly exploited, then acquire a life of their own and generate all sorts of nasty, hateful, narrow-minded, anti-people ripples.

the thesis, i think, is the following: taking sexual advantage of kids is a sickness and a sin and a moral wrong, but in no way a reason to persecute, vilify, isolate and destroy a human being. or a category of human beings. in fact, it carries all sorts of complexities both for the perpetrator and for the victim. the latter are elucidated by the viola davis character, a working class black woman with a (we infer) queer kid and a husband who is viciously contemptuous and abusive of said kid. the film seems bent on leaving all plot details vague, maybe to play on the idea of “doubt” but in fact generating frustration and murkiness, so we’re not really sure of what passes between the lone black boy at this all-white catholic school and the priest, but it is also very clear that the priest loves the boy and the boy loves the priest and that there is genuine desire on the part of the priest to help the beleaguered boy and genuine reliance on this help on the part of the – in truth pretty miserable – boy. and the boy’s mother is grateful that the priest is helping, very very grateful. and even though she knows that some hanky panky may be going on, she likes the priest’s kindness and she likes her own kid and she prefers the hanky panky to the savage beatings the kid gets at home. which is to say (thesis sub-point number 1): being a sexual molester does not in itself signify or cause global viciousness in the molester, or: even child molesters can be very good people (in other areas).

the hoffman character highlights the lovely feature of christianity (and probably all religions worthy of the name) that is the belief that we are all sinners. when truly embraced, this belief carries with itself all sorts of Very Good Things, like: tolerance, forgiveness, compassion, un-judgmentality, and the desire to help rather than condemn and ban. needless to say, the terribly drawn and very one-dimensional meryl streep character stands for exactly the opposite. but then she’s interesting too, because she knows that her rigidity and meanness are “a step away from god.” for some reason, she believes that she can override god in order to do what is Right. which is theologically very interesting, it seems to me, because it raises the classic dilemma of whether something is good because god loves it or god loves it because it’s good. the epistemological corollary of this dilemma is: do we know what’s good independently of god? sister aloysius thinks she does, and that is, it seems to me, a Very Bad Thing, maybe the worst possible sin, the sin of adam and eve, the sin of arrogance and of putting oneself before god.

unfortunately the director doesn’t tease out the emotional underpinnings and psychological consequences of this attitude in sister aloysius, which is why the movie is a thesis rather than a movie.

the hoffman character knows that he has a problem, but he deals with it, and (thesis sub-point number 2) trusts in god’s mercy. or: holding on to your sins and letting them get you so down that you stop doing god’s work is arrogant. or: god is bigger than your weaknesses.

i found the hoffman character very exemplary: when sister aloysius forces him to move to a new church, he accepts his fate with simplicity, humility, and a hard-won cheerfulness. at the same time, the director does not depict him as a saint. he leaves behind a trail of pain – boys that didn’t like what they had to deal with when he was around, one boy (the black boy) who loses his only protector.

yet (thesis sub-point number 3), it’s always better to believe people innocent and redeemable than to stigmatize and exile them. this part of the thesis is embodied by the amy adams character, a luminous sister james, to whom the film is dedicated.

in its celebration of doubt, this film celebrates complexity, and lack of certainty, and a humble belief that we never ever see the whole picture, and i like this, i like this very much. so, yeah, not a good film, but definitely a worthy endeavor.

5 thoughts on “doubt”

  1. I agree with everything you wrote. I haven’t seen the play, but I’ve read it–and I am tempted to guess that the thesis plays better on stage, that there is something potentially rich and theatrical about the intriguing combination of somewhat reductive Claim and genuinely intriguing ambiguity that would dazzle with real bodies, physical presences, moving about. Idea and body and plot…. which do not easily translate to the screen. I found the film smart but flat — the performances smart but unengaging. (I felt somewhat similar about the adaptation of “Angels in America”–welldone, and forgettable, when I’d really loved the plays. “Doubt,” too, is a great read, but….)

    Nice review, G.

  2. I’ve never been a big fan of religious authoritarianism or The Church. nor am I a big fan of thesis-movies, which is why I avoided this movie. It looked like it was full of acting. I am happy to see priestly child-molestors stigmatized. But, of course, I recognize that nobody is fully bad. I understand that Westley Allan Dodd was very good at macrame.

  3. This is flat, and it is too obviously translated from the stage. It raises a whole set of themes, very well summarized by Gio, but there is a mechanistic, didactic quality to the way it proceeds which reminded me very much of ‘Crash.’ The big set-piece confrontation between Hoffman and Streep (in which the latter turns the tables) is precisely too “full of acting.”

    The pleasures of this film are mostly small, but no less real. Hoffman, as Gio notes, is superb; I was entranced almost every time he appeared, coaching basketball, answering boys’ questions about dating over lemonade and cookies. And an earlier scene involving Hoffman, Streep and Adams is wonderful; Hoffman uses half-smiles, the occasional pause, and humor to show his anger (and authority over Streep) rather than histrionics. I liked the patient build up over the first half hour.

    One thing that struck me was how secular the unfolding of the plot was. Sure, the theme of doubt and certainty can be a theological one, but the protagonists almost never made theological claims, nor tried to justify their actions in religious terms. Perhaps it is how I chose to read the film, as an atheist, but this was about very human emotions: jealousy, authority, pique, anger, compassion, and so on; no great religious principles were at stake, and none were resolved by the outcome.

  4. what I meant to say, perhaps in an inarticulate fashion, is that the overlay of religion is completely unnecessary to this movie, and that Streep and Hoffman almost never cloak their motivations in religious terms. The setting is religious only in order to make more plausible to us, the audience, the potential act of pedophilia. We can choose to read the movie as a meditation on theology (even as an affirmation of religious values, as in your comment on the beauty of Christianity’s view of sinners), but that comes from us, not the movie.

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