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Monday
Feb232009

Doubt

One of the lessons that theology teaches you, should you be open to such lessons, is that faith derives much of its strength from denial.  This philosopher paraphrased the matter more succinctly: what cannot be doubted is not worth knowing or believing.  It is easy for the simple materialist minds of today to contemn any form of spiritual belief system, but not quite as simple for them to swallow that their own cosmogony is not only less provable, it is also less likely.  When we consider that people of faith sense the greatness that surrounds them whereas those of no faith stare into the night sky and see nothing except unlimited emptiness in a meaningless void, the divide becomes even more egregious.  Those of faith will struggle with the principles they have because those principles are sometimes very hard to apply; yet the faithless will never admit that they have doubts.  How can one doubt the straight road of evolution and progress into that meaningless void?  They will never admit that they have moments, sensations, thoughts, which could not possibly be explained by human science; instead, they will emphasize the tricks we play on one another and on ourselves (modern psychology, the trick's on you).  The truth of the matter is not that truth is relative, but that within the bosom of good people – and the overwhelming majority of us are good – there is a tendency to act within the boundaries of a moral law that provides no immediate benefit, and often no benefit at all apart from a clearer conscience.  We witness this law when we feel pain for others that are not dear to us and to whom we cannot relate; we sense the law when we feel proud about the election of a great leader and the downfall of a tyrant; and most of all we enter into this covenant when we love something and someone more than we love ourselves.  Selfishness, the calling card of the unimaginative frauds who have never loved anything or anyone and so think that all of humanity is just as shallow and miserable, is not our propeller, it is a life preserver to be used in emergencies.  For almost every hour of our privileged existence we can afford to care about the rest of humanity and, to the utmost of our particular ability, do something to better it.  For that reason do many very good individuals take the cloth, and immediately assume a far greater burden than the average citizen.  Which brings us to this recent film.

The year is 1964, a year that might have been bold enough to imagine the events of 2008.  America has begun its long journey into a fairer world for non-Caucasians, and integration is evident at some of the most consistently segregated levels, including Catholic schools.  One such institution is the Bronx parish elementary and middle school run by the draconian schoolmarm Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep).  Those who have as well as those who haven't attended Catholic schools agree that too many academies promote a trinity of oppression, discipline, and fear, and Aloysius does little to dissuade us of this stereotype.  Yet the moral complexity of her character gains a particular hue when she casually reveals that she had been married during the war and, having lost her husband to continental strife, decided that she was better off never marrying again.  This biographical detail is never explained or exploited; it simply alerts us to the fact that what we think we know about ascetic lifestyles pales in comparison to what persons of that order might know about us.  Aloysius has a small staff of sisters, including the callow Sister James (Amy Adams), but by far the most dynamic and charming of her teachers is the mercurial Father Flynn (a particularly superb Philip Seymour Hoffman). 

Flynn is the pastor of the church, and therefore by default also its voice and face.  His first sermon, which opens the film, relates the tale of a shipwrecked sailor, a sole survivor who steers his lowly makeshift raft in accordance with the stars.  Clouds gather and "for twenty days and twenty nights" (our modern impatience can apparently only tolerate half the Biblical number) the sailor cannot read the starry firmament.  He has no way of knowing he is on the right path to salvation apart from his inner feelings which tell him, most of the time at least, that he should have no concerns.  The sailor and his plight nourish a primitive metaphor; yet its use, and more importantly, the secularization of the imagery into mere astrolabe guidance bespeaks Flynn's true intentions: the Church must modernize.  As Aloysius's nuns eat in morbid silence around a lifeless table, he dines on bloody meat, and drinks and smokes with two other priests; as Aloysius consumes her tea like her morality, conventional and bland, Flynn takes three sugars; as Aloysius raps the napes and knuckles of her imperfect pupils, Flynn runs a spirited basketball practice; and as Aloysius forbids any of the students from touching a sister's wimple, Flynn routinely hugs and pats his greenhorns.  And one student garners special attention from Flynn, a young and curious boy called Donald Miller, who just happens to be the school's first and only African-American.

What happens and doesn't happen within the parameters stated above comprises the core of the film's questions, and the questions accumulate.  Flynn's initial reaction to Aloysius's hints and allegations is to compose a sermon on intolerance (which he delivers with gusto in the middle of the film), but he never truly convinces us or his colleagues of his intentions.  As the debate heightens we begin to notice the less conspicuous details in each camp.  Aloysius suggests that Sister James use a photograph of this pontiff to watch her students while writing on the board, like "having eyes in the back of your head," an image Sister James likens to a "monster."  Flynn, on the other hand, engenders a strange reaction from one of the boys, a fidgety character by the name of William London who, according to Aloysius, "would burn his foot [to miss] half a day of school."  Both parties seem to be skirting what may be loosely termed traditional moral values for the sake of achieving an ulterior aim, although the aim itself never quite comes into cloudless focus.  Flynn is both angelic in his compassion and devilish in his irreverence, his long, immaculate nails emphasizing his alleged purity as well as the bestial desires that seem at times to bubble within him; on the other hand, Aloysius, we are reminded, may be a metaphoric victim of the creeping blindness that has stricken the older sisters of her parish. 

Reminiscent at times of this film based on a play whose title is an old pun for Latinists (importantly, the Mother Superior in Agnes of God was also married before becoming a nun), Doubt has been hyped as allowing two, or indeed even three possible interpretations of what actually occurs.  Astute viewers will see, however, that only one explanation collects all the details into a complete set.  And while the tone of the film's last line should have been changed or omitted altogether, since what is said is clear from the expression on the person's face, we have already gathered our evidence and amassed our doubts.  The falling branches are the sign of a falling world; autumn itself betokens radical and evident change; and a strange gust of wind that blows through everything and everyone acts as the metronome to the oddities at the parish (not to mention the light bulbs bursting at critical moments).  So when Aloysius declares that "every easy choice today will have its consequences tomorrow," we are reminded of the simile that Flynn uses for gossip involving a feather pillow.  If only all human ambitions could be elucidated so elegantly.

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