Doubt (2008)

Rated: PG-13 for thematic material.
Length: 104 minutes
Grade: A+BAA+=A+
Budget: $20 million
Box Office: $57 million (33 U.S., 17 Intl., 7 DVD)

Written and Directed by: John Patrick Stanley (Joe Versus the Volcano, January Man, and Moonstruck)
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, and Amy Adams.

When a young progressive priest comes to a Bronx parish in 1964, the stern headmistress suspects that he has been having an inappropriate relationship with an acolyte.

Entertainment Value: A+
This is simply outstanding filmmaking. There’s just no way around it. Doubt got 5 Academy nominations, and the only reason it didn’t win anything is that it came up against other movies and performances which were equally outstanding, particularly Hoffman against Ledger for The Dark Knight, although I would have gone with Streep over Winslett for The Reader. I was not at allsurprised to discover this movie was based on a successful play. The writing here is as tight and powerful as anything I’ve recently seen. It is a masterpiece of complexity. The acting is truly amazing. In short, if you don’t want to immediately discuss this movie with someone after seeing it, it’s hard to imagine you ever wanting to discuss any movie you’d ever see.

Superficial Content: B
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity B, Violence A, Language B, Illegality ?
The only flaw in this movie is the one time a boy swears, which was completely unnecessary. Other than that and the couple of times we see people drinking wine with their meals and smoking, the movie is squeaky clean. Nonetheless, the PG-13 rating is correct, given the very difficult subject matter being discussed.

Significant Content: A
Doubt is at least as much a choice as faith. In life, we are continually required to pick what we believe about things and people, and how we make those choices defines us. People who are emphatic about rules do not have very much capacity for love. Dogmatism is usually a mask for tremendous uncertainty. It’s important to be tolerant about things we do not agree with.

Artistic/Thought Value: A+
Let me tell you what I think this movie is really about. It is not about whether Father Flynn really molested Donald. That is the springboard for the much larger questions about our belief in God and Christ. See, what Sister Beauvier is saying to Sister James is that this question (of Father Flynn’s guilt or innocence) is simply too big a question to take any chances on. Were it a lesser matter, then simply moving along would be acceptable. But precisely because he is either the greatest of pastors or else the most despicable of men, a decision must be had. I think this is intended as a practical application of the (never-mentioned) question of faith in God. The thing is simply too important to be ignored or answered based on some weak general-case sort of principle. In this sense, I believe this movie is really designed to rip out from underneath the agnostic his comfortable indifference to picking a side on the question of religion. In other words, I believe the message of this movie is essentially, “Sister Beauvier had to decide. Sister James had to decide. Now you have to decide, not merely about this fictional priest, but about the greatest question of your life.”

Discussion Questions:
~What are Sister Beauvier’s views on sugar, ball-point pens, and secular songs intended to tell us about her character? What bothers her more about Father Flynn: that he disagrees with her on some matters or that he isn’t even concerned that there might be something problematic involved in others?
~Sister James accuses Sister Beauvier of being predisposed to hate Father Flynn and therefore being too eager to see him as guilty. Do you think this is true? Have you ever been too eager to see someone this way, either a particular person or even a group of people?
~Sister Beauvier responds that Sister James is too trusting and naïve. Is this true? Have you ever been oblivious to danger because of your eagerness to trust or your naïveté? Between these two extremes, which is the better side to generally be on?
~Which is easier: believing the best about people or believing the worst about them? To what degree is apathy a byproduct of laziness? Consider some current examples such as 9/11 conspiracies, the justice of the Iraq war
~“It’s an old tactic of cruel people to kill kindness in the name of virtue.” What applications of this idea can you see in this culture?
~It would seem that this movie was meant to be about the Catholic priest abuse cases and how they could go on for so long, but do you think that is the primary purpose of the movie?
~Between Sister Beauvier and Father Flynn, who do you finally side with? Who in this movie do you most closely see yourself as being? How might this affect whom you see as the hero or villain of the movie? Since the movie is clearly intended to leave us wondering what really happened, what is our own belief about what happened intended to reveal to us instead?
~Real freedom of belief can only exist in the presence of some uncertainty. How does this movie allow you freedom of belief? How does that make it uniquely useful? Do you prefer movies that give you definite endings and revelations about all the facts? What does that preference teach you about yourself? Which characters in the movie would like or dislike this movie, and why?
~In what sense is doubt and skepticism itself a form of faith? Is Father Flynn right that doubt and even despair, like faith, if collectively experienced (such as in the wake of JFK’s assassination) can itself be a source of unity and bonding?
~Which of these characters seem truly happy? Which of them seem basically healthy? How might that influence your decision about whom to believe?
~Whom would you prefer to trust with your children: Father Flynn or Sister Beauvier? Is Sister James an ideal?
~Father Flynn complains that Sister Beauvier violated important rules of protocol and authority. Why do such procedures exist? What is the Biblical pattern for confrontation? Did Sister Beauvier follow it?
~Donald’s mother responds very unexpectedly to Sister Beauvier. Discuss her attitude. Is she a good mother?
~Why do you think Sister Beauvier is the way she is? What is your explanation for her?
What things does this movie tell us about Sister Beauvier’s character that make her a difficult person to categorize? Would you call her loving?
~Sister Beauvier is portrayed as a very unchristian example. Make the best case you possibly can that she is actually a very good Christian.
~Legalists essentially distrust people who are able to enjoy themselves. Why is this? Do you agree?
~Sister Beauvier says, A dog that bites is a dog that bites.” Do you agree? Is this a Christian attitude?
~Is it true that the pursuit of wrongdoers and the prevention of wrongdoing actually takes us a step away from God, even if it’s the right thing to do? If so, what implications does this have for police, judges, prison guards, lawyers, and members of the military? How can something right take us away from God?
~To what degree would you say that Sister Beauvier’s assertive certainty about everything is really just a smokescreen to cover over her own profound doubts? What is she most deeply afraid of? Are loud and dogmatic people usually really confident or really insecure at bottom?
~Once we have decided to see something a particular way, we often find confirming evidence to reassure us. Can you think of some cases in your own life where this has been true?
~Can you think of some examples in your life where you are currently experiencing doubt?
~How does Donald’s race and the isolation that it engenders function both to make us sympathize with Father Flynn for treating him tenderly and also raise our level of disgust at him potentially singling out this particular boy?
Overall Grade: A+
I upgraded it from just an A the more I thought about it. This is a fantastic film that could be the source for many sermons.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am wondering about potential symbolism in this movie: the wind, the open window, all the stuff with the lightbulbs blowing out, opening and closing the blinds and keeping the fingernails clean. My girlfriend had a good idea about the fingernails: guys are supposed to keep them short right? Well, Padre Flynn likes his long, but he is intent on keeping them clean. He even emphasizes the cleanliness of nails a couple of times to the pupils. Is this a symbol for legalism? It really is not important that the nails be short or long for guys--this is just some arbitrary cultural rule. The real important thing is to keep them clean--this is important for health.

The wind: I'm not too sure on this one. There's always an eerieness about it. That weird music always accompanies it--it's ominous. Does it represent God, as it is a force of nature? Does it represent God's judgment of/anger at Meryl Streep's character?

The lights: Meryl Streep's character is always turning on the lights. Sister James blows out the bulb as does Father Flynn. Father Flynn also closes the blinds. Is this a show of Streep's self-righteousness, she is showing off that she has the light, she is right and they are the ones in darkness? They (James and Flynn) are secure in their faith; they do not need to flaunt these superficial symbols of faith.-BA