John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt (2008)

What a fascinating movie. The acting is absolutely outstanding. We see Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and a stunning Viola Davis. They are all equally great. It has been a while since I have seen such fantastic acting. Doubt is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by John Patrick Shanley which explains why it is quite wordy. I could imagine that I would also have enjoyed it in the theater but like this it was maybe even better.

The movie plays in the 60s in a catholic school in the Bronx. The liberal and kind pastor Father Flynn for some reasons attracts the suspicion of the stern Mother Superior Sister Aloysius. When he preaches a sermon on doubt everything is clear to her. No matter what anyone says, no matter what he himself pretends, sister Aloysius is convinced, Father Flynn has engaged in an “unsuitable” relationship with one of the students, the first black boy to ever go to the school.

What follows is a witch-hunt. The more the father denies it, the more she is convinced. She is such a heartless, strict and domineering woman. She allows no joy or change. Every tiny little mishap has to be punished severely. This is reminiscent of the mother in Elfriede Jelinek’s outstanding and bleak novel The Piano Teacher.

We wonder all the time why she is so much against him, why she does want to see him fall. Because he is kind and she is incapable of kindness? Because he wants change and there is nothing she hates more? Because he points out that people do not appreciate her ways, pupils fear her? She has an answer to everything, she is very eloquent, her speech is full of witty and sarcastic repartees.

Sister Aloyisous and her self-righteousness did infuriate me such a lot until – and this is the true marvel of the movie – I started to doubt as well. Maybe she was right? It could be, couldn’t it? How often do we not hear of child abuse by Catholic priests? We also have to realize that despite being a zealot and a fanatic, she thinks she is doing good.

If you like great acting, you should watch this. If you want action, then rather leave it out.

The movie takes place mostly inside of the school but we also see some nice pictures of New Yorker brownstones and the little yard inside of the school walls. We see the seasons change which is quite beautiful. The weather plays an important role. There are heavy storms, wind and rain that seem to mirror the tumultuous feelings of all the parties involved.

One of the best scenes is when Sister Aloysius  confronts the mother of the black student and the mother tells her that as long as someone is kind to her boy, she doesn’t care what kind of interest he has in him. Viola Davis plays this role incredibly well. A few words make us see her and her boy’s miserable life with a brutal and abusive father who hits him whenever he can.

The best however is how this movie manages to show how hurtful gossip and slander are. It reminds us of being more careful with the things we say about others.

10 thoughts on “John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt (2008)

  1. Its funny, I would say that she was right in her belief. Nothing is ever made clear in the film, which I loved, so that we always feel that doubt 🙂

    I really liked the way it was shown how little power this supposedly powerful nun had when faced with the men of the church.

    • That’s absolutely true, although she was powerful in some ways, she couldn’t do anything against a man. That is why I doubted the accusation. Not because it isn’t possible but because slander was the only way of getting rid of someone in his position.

      • That’s true. And she didn’t do herself any favours with not liking him for other reasons, ball point pen use, long nails, and of course his more modern attitude.

        The film shows that she had run into an abusing priest in a different circumstance, and, from what I remember it hinted that she didn’t believe that until it was far too late. I wonder is this a case of going to far the other way.

        • I had totally forgotten about that detail, yes of course, she hadn’t noticed at the time and maybe she thought she could do the right thing this time. At the end she starts to doubt herself. I think she knows very well that there were things she disliked in him that had nothing to do with any possible “abuse”. It is actually good that the movie does add the first story because unfortunately it is all too common that priests abuse children.

  2. Great review! Much better than my short review last year. I like this movie,the actors are brilliant. It was really unfair to see what happened to that father. I like how the movie left it hanging,it left us with our own doubt

    • Thanks, Novroz. I didn’t see your review. I really thought this movie was absolutely well done. Very thought-provoking. I am still not sure whether she was right or wrong. The boy really loved Father Flynn that’s why I thought she must be wrong and then again… Very interesting.

    • I like war movies as well but I truly enjoyed this one as it doesn’t give any simple answers. I did appreciate that a lot. It arftully plays with the notion in the title.

  3. I’ve not seen this but after reading your review and watching the trailer I am going to have to add it to my Netflix queue. Meryl Streep is always good and she is so versatile. You’ve made me curious now–does she ever find proof…and what happens in the end…. ?? 🙂

    • I do not understand how some people can criticize her for her acting. I loved her in everything I saw. I’ll be very interested to hear your thoughts once you watched it. I was quite sure I got it right and then started to doubt again but after the comments I’m sure again.

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