If any part of your educational history includes spending time in a Catholic Elementary School in the 1960s, as mine did, then you must see Doubt. Or, if you just want to see a riveting movie with a splendid cast, then you must see Doubt. Screenwriter and director John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, adapted from his 2004 off-Broadway play of the same name, features Meryl Streep in a featured role with a strong cast and an equally powerful timely story of suspicions surrounding the conduct of a Catholic priest and an altar boy.
The story takes place in the autumn of 1964 in the Bronx, New York neighborhood parish of St. Nicholas. Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Streep) is the iron-gloved principal of the parish elementary school with Philip Seymour Hoffman playing beautifully the seemingly kind Father Brendan Flynn, the pastor of the parish. Both give performances worthy of their Oscar-laden careers and their screen interaction is dynamic. Two other actresses contribute memorable supporting roles: Amy Adams as the naive and idealistic Sister James and Viola Davis, who portrays Mrs. Miller, the mother of Donald Miller, the young altar boy who may have been molested by Father Flynn.
Doubt deals with a very real problem still confronting the Catholic Church today. Not just the problem of identifying troubled priests who molest youngsters, but also the Church’s handling of the situation. Recent reports from dozens of cases from Catholic parishes across America and around the world have demonstrated that, in general, the Church’s hierarchy has handled these situations very poorly. Often times, their only solution to the problem was to transfer a priest to a new parish rather than barring him from serving as a priest. In this powerful religious environment where the pastor of the parish is the ultimate authority, Shanley’s Doubt shows how hard it is to get at the truth. Sister Beauvier is certain she knows what happened between Father Flynn and the altar boy. “I have my certainty!” she cries out to her accused, though she admits to others that she has no evidence to back up her suspicions. Always calm and in control, Meryl Streep does seem to break Fr. Flynn’s cool facade at one point when he shouts back: “What did you hear, what did you see that convinced you so thoroughly?” Some may share the “doubt” felt by young Sister James and Mrs. Miller who believe that Father Flynn’s caring nature make him incapable of such a horrible crime. They view his being overly attentive to young Donald Miller as an act of kindness to the first black student admitted to St. Nicholas. “The church is changing and we should be friendlier,” Father Flynn lectures an unbelieving and suspicious Sister Beauvier. Just how friendly Father Flynn was to Donald Miller is the question that drives the plot and sows the seed of Doubt.
As a youth, I never served as an alter boy and was never (thankfully) inside a Church’s Rectory until I was an adult. Doubt brought back many memories of my own Catholic School days, especially the performance of Meryl Streep as the school’s principal. The movie’s scenes inside the hallways and classrooms of St. Nicholas School, the attire of the nuns and students, and the strong authoritative portrayals of the Church’s hierarchy by this wonderful Ensemble cast of Doubt was incredibly accurate for 1964. I almost found myself needing to rise to proper attention when, on the screen, Principal Beauvier walked into the classroom. For a moment, I thought Meryl Streep was my first-grade principal – Sister Vincetta – from St. Joseph’s School on Long Island.