Eat Your Vegetables: "Doubt" (Shanley, 2008)

Each week in Eat Your Vegetables, Jonathan Sircy shares the benefit and appeal of some of the culture’s more inaccessible or intimidating artifacts.

Cultural Vegetable of the Week: Doubt (John Patrick Shanley; 2008)

Doubt is provocative, but its ideas are rather sloppy. And this is first and foremost a movie about ideas, not people.

The film focuses on a small parochial school in the early ’60s, some time after Kennedy’s death but before Nixon’s election. Our attention is directed toward two sisters and one father. The elder Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) runs the school with an iron fist and earns adjectives like “medieval” and “cruel.” Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is an affable sort who jokes and lovingly cares for his parishioners and the school’s students. His homilies traffic in modern-day parables rather than Scripture, and his “spirituality” is at odds with the deeply “religious” Aloysius.

In between these two titans is Sister James (Amy Adams), who, like us, has to decide between the two. She is the Catholic Church, America, the human race at a moment of transition. Yeah, I know…

The film offers three possible theses:

  1. No one actually holds religious beliefs. Doubt is the only thing that unites us.
  2. Radical certainty masks radical doubt.
  3. The Catholic Church is in a lot of trouble. The film can’t absolve Sister Aloysius’s Salem-witch-hunt-routine, but it must admit that the Catholic Church probably needed more people like her in order to avoid the Church’s current priest sex scandal.

Admittedly, that last one is a bit sloppy, but so too is the film’s engagement with the Catholic Church.

The film is thoroughly post-modern despite its early ’60s setting. Faith communities, we learn, are based on the supposition that someone out there believes, even if it’s not us. It is to the rest of us that Father Flynn addresses his first sermon about doubt and how it’s not the boogeyman that we often hear it is. Flynn’s reasoning is not based on any deep spiritual insight. Rather, it has its origin in political realities, a nation still in shock from losing its president and the growing unrest over inadequate civil rights. The Church is not a place for believers. It’s a place for a united community of doubters. The idealism Kennedy embodied is gone. The nation harbors political radicals and racists. The era of belief has passed away. Just as the Church has long been the “one who is supposed to believe” for the society — the pocket of faith whose commitment absolves the rest of society from having to believe — the Church itself has now been invaded by uncertainty. Before the film is over, even the Church’s true believer is exposed as a fraud.

Because of course this whole community-of-doubt shtick only makes sense when set against some hypothetical body of believers. This is where Sister Aloysius enters the picture. Sure, she’s a little crass and outdated, but at least we think she has the strength of her convictions. She cares enough about the Church’s traditions to be scared into reactionary fundamentalism when she gets threatened by the progressive Flynn. But the film’s rug-pulling final line expresses what we’ve already suspected: that even the supposedly dedicated Aloysius has her own doubts.

So, at the end of the film, we’re asked to consider who really believes. In this way, the film expresses a rather patronizing view of religious rituals. It’s only at the film’s end that the audience’s avatar, Sister James, can truly embrace Sister Aloysius. Now that Aloysius has admitted her doubt, she gets welcomed into the community. But where is the positive model of religious faith against which we can juxtapose the more mature response of doubt? The film can’t show it because its view of religion is essentially an impotent, post-modern one that reaps its own reward of smug self-congratulation. The Catholic faithful follow the routines, hoping that someone’s real belief will provide the content for their form. And when confronted with that belief, they can do one of two things: dismiss it as barbaric fundamentalism or unearth the doubt that such certainty covers over.

The film ultimately believes in doubt, thus robbing both belief and doubt of their potency.

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