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Note: Contains spoilers!
Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) utters the first real line in the movie. While delivering his sermon at Sunday mass he asks, channelling Oprah, “What are you sure about?”. That Sunday, his sermon is about ‘doubt’; how, like ‘despair’ which brings people together in their moments of loss, ‘doubt’ could also be a unifying force.
The rest of the nearly two-hour movie is a lesson in how doubt does no such thing; how it more thoroughly accomplishes the exact opposite; how it roils emotions, tears people apart and disintegrates relationships.
The movie begins on a dreary Autumn day in New York. Dry, dead leaves blanket the streets, the trees are bare, the sky is overcast, a persistent wind whips up stray pieces of litter – an apt metaphor for what is about to transpire within the walls of the church and the parochial school attached to it.
In the inner recesses of the church, Donald Miller, an 8th-grader at the school and an altar boy, is trying to hold together his life, strewn asunder by many factors – he’s the only black student in a school serving a predominantly Irish and Italian parish in 1964; he thinks he might be fat; he’s clearly looking for acceptance and affection. That much we know. As the story unfolds, the plot peels back a few more layers, laying bare the insecurities of a boy with more stuff on his plate than the your typical troubled teen.
In Father Flynn he finds a smiling face, a generous heart, a fun disposition and a willing ear. Precisely all the things that are seemingly revolting to Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), head nun and Principal of the school.
Epitome of discipline, guardian of all things virtuous, firm in her convictions and strict follower of dictum and decorum, she rules over her school with an iron hand and a steely glare. She has an intimate understanding of the limitations of her position within the church’s hierarchy and so is well aware that Father Flynn orbits outside the sphere of her control. It is also this knowledge of the church’s rules that informs her about the myriad ways in which to bend them to achieve her objectives, to make things right in her eyes.
In this quest, she employs her underlings to do her bidding. Sister James (Amy Adams), fresh-faced, naive, trusting, gentle and – most importantly from Sister Aloysius’ point of view – eager to please, finds herself in the vortex created by the opposing forces of Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn.
Bidden to keep an eye out for anything suspicious involving Father Flynn, Sister James comes into what she clearly feels is disturbing information. First, Father Flynn interrupts class to call Donald Miller into his office for a private meeting. Then there is alcohol breath, there’s a misplaced undershirt. Finally, a seemingly disturbed Donald Miller returns to class. They each have seemingly innocuous reasons and explanations, but put together with Sister Aloysius’ admonishment, the implications are ominous.
Sister James heads straight to Sister Aloysius and sets in motion a juggernaut that, try as she might, she is powerless to stop.
What motivates Sister James to go to Sister Aloysius? Is it her concern for Donald Miller or is it her desire to please Sister Aloysius? What motivates Sister Aloysius to try to tear down Father Flynn? Is she being protective of Donald Miller or does she resent how easily Father Flynn seems to relate to the students? What motivates Father Flynn? Does he want to be the father-figure that Donald Miller seems to need or is he seeking something more from the lonely boy?
Into this swirling pot of questions, the movie drops Donald Miller’s mother (Viola Davis) and her own incentives. Does she know what is going on with her son at school? She’s obviously heard a lot from him about Father Flynn and seems to have a rosy picture about the Father’s intentions. Is she right? Even when confronted with Sister Aloysius’ suspicions, she brushes them away. Her focus is on her son graduating and getting into a good high school and then on to college. Anything that might stand in the way – anything – is just a distraction.
Four or five scenes where nothing happens other than people talking to each other, lobbying for their point of view, make the film. It’s a testament to the excellent portrayals of each of these parts that my own views rocked back and forth between Father Flynn’s innocence and guilt, while making me increasingly frustrated with both Sister James’ naivete and Sister Aloysius’ certitude.
There a some awkward moments when the camera lingers a tad longer than it should have or when the actors seem to be waiting for some cue before starting their scenes. The final scene involving Sister James and Sister Aloysius seems contrived to tie it to Father Flynn’s first sermon. I wish that loose end had remained loose for a selfish reason, I admit. In the moments before that final scene, I was convinced I knew what had happened.