Thursday, January 1, 2009


I've recently seen the new movie Doubt at the theater, and it raised some interesting issues that I've already been thinking about. If you haven't yet seen the movie, my thoughts here might well spoil it, though the movie is less about plot (which is as much as given away by the trailer) as it is about the way in which the plot unfolds. I'm no movie buff on any account, but I thought Streep and Hoffman were brilliant. But what interests me is not the acting so much as the story itself, and the ensuing web of religion, authority, and a battle between doubt and certainty.

The storyline is straightforward. Streep, who plays a nun that is the principal of a Catholic school, suspects the priest (Hoffman) of abusing one of the students. One of his sermons puts her on guard, and various events raise her level of suspicion. What's brilliant about the story is not the sad tale of abuse (or suspected abuse), but rather Streep's reaction to it. She is a woman in a male dominated world (both within and outside of the Church). She has a fixed role in the Church hierarchy, and allusions are made to the incompetency of those above her. Streep's frustration at her position, and at her (seeming) powerlessness comes through strongly. How must it feel to be the protector of a group of children, to suspect they are in harm's way, and to have little means of recourse? Add to her frustration her faith. Within the Church, her role as a woman is limited. It's bad enough to be limited by societal norms, but it's even worse to worry that God has forbade you to act. Streep's character hints several times that the in the pursuit of wrong doing one takes a step away from God. And as the tension between Streep and Hoffman mounts, Streep sides with that pursuit over God saying: "I will step outside the church if that's what needs to be done, till the door should shut behind me! I will do what needs to be done, though I'm damned to Hell!"

The tension here is between her faith in a perceived religious role or duty and the (almost intuitionist) sense of what must be done, of what's right. For Streep, she would follow that moral sentiment even at the cost of her salvation. What's most striking here is that the problem is which side to choose and not why there are two sides at all. What is the role of a religion that comes apart from moral convictions? The agony that Streep portrays is her struggle over this, over what side she will choose, and at what cost. Of course, a larger question hovers in the background: oughtn't the two sides coincide? If they don't, shouldn't that suggest that we've gotten one or the other wrong? It's this question that has been on my mind a great deal, but as usual, only as a question with little progress towards an answer.

My favorite part of the movie, apart from Streep's seething confrontation with Hoffman towards the end, is the very last dialogue between Streep and a younger nun. Throughout the film the question of the priest's guilt was left open, and though it felt natural to side with Streep's character, there was no real resolution of the matter. What was most moving was that throughout the film Streep's character is unwavering in her certainty (or alleged certainty) of the priest's guilt. She seems to believe it as strongly as she believes in God Himself. Yet at the very end, after everyone else has in vain struggled with their own doubts, Streep cries out: "I have doubts. I have such doubts." If I cried in movies, I would have cried then. What does she doubt? My first thought was the most obvious, she doubts whether she did the right thing, for a number reasons. The priest might have been innocent. Or does she doubt whether more good came in the end. As a result of her actions, the priest was transferred (which I've been told, was the routine solution in such cases, a thought that makes me shiver) to a more prestigious post at a larger parish. Now not only is he climbing the latter, but he has no one watching over his shoulder, no one protecting the children as she did.

Her heartfelt confession to Sister James seemed to almost signal something greater, something more troubling. She doubts the Church, her role in it, its teachings. With the marginalization of women and the ignorant eye turned towards men's misdeeds, how could she revere it? Or does she doubt her faith, God, his existence or his goodness, or maybe his justice? In the pursuit of wrong doing, one takes a step away from God, she said. Isn't there truth in that? Either because that pursuit feels like you've stopped trusting God's provision, his goodness or his protection. You've taken matters into your own hands because no one else will, not even God. More troubling, you've come closer to evil, to sin. It's hard to commune with God when you are thrust into the middle of another's fallenness. She doubts. She, the unwavering, steady, bulwark of her school, of her parish. Even she doubts.

I should add here, since I neglected to mention it above, that the whole matter is further complicated by the tension between Streep and Hoffman's characters over political change within the church. The boy in question was the first African-American student, which marked the beginning of a crusade for change by the priest. He was charismatic and modern, and his friendship with the boy seemed to be goodwilled. He wanted the school to be more inviting, the Church looser. But Streep's world was black and white, and the grey middle ground he proposed both frightened her and aroused her suspcion. She may have struggled with her inferior role, but in the end, was it her rigidity and not the guilt of the priest that threatened to tear their world apart? All of it, great stuff.

No comments: