Doubt is a 2008 film based on John Patrick Shanley’s award-winning stage play Doubt: A Parable, which ran on Broadway 2005-2006. Shanley also wrote the screenplay. The play and film are dedicated to one of John Patrick Shanley’s teachers, Sister Margaret McEntee, S.C., who advised on setting and also advised the actors playing Sister James. However, Doubt is not based on any particular true story.
Meryl Streep plays Sister Aloysius Beauvier, which speaks to her acting range. Streep is empathetic in Bridges Over Madison County, formidable and unlikeable in August: Osage County; here she is both.
See also: Films That Centre Characters Over 40
MULTIPLE LAYERS OF IRONY
The best stories have a pillar of irony holding them up. Doubt is an excellent example of this.
Note that this story does not dabble much in dramatic irony. At no point do we know more about Father Flynn than does Sister Beauvier and Sister James combined. We do see Father Flynn with Donald, but we do not see him being abusive. We have little more than glimpses ourselves.
At times Sister James reveals herself to know more than we have been given. There’s no such thing as smell-o-vision yet, so we must wait until Sister James is ready to reveal that a boy came back to class smelling of alcohol after being called out of class.
Sister Aloysius Beauvier knows something is wrong with the new Father Flynn. She’s not sure exactly what, or when, or how, but she has learned over decades as a woman in the Catholic Church to trust her intuition. The irony? Her certainty is nebulous, but she is in no doubt. Nebulous doubt. It’s a thing. Of course, further irony emerges at the end, turning this into a depressingly circular story which modern audiences know has been repeating since time immemorial, and certainly since the 1960s, when this is set.
IRONY TO SHOWCASE THE IMBALANCE OF POWER IN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
Sister Veronica is going blind. Sister Beauvier is hiding this from the people higher up because if they catch wind she’ll be gone in an instant. The irony is that they won’t look after a nun who has devoted her life to the church, but they will keep a male sexual predator.
IRONY AT THE LEVEL OF CHARACTER
Irony can be seen in characterisation.
Of Sister Beauvier and Father Flynn, who is seen as the more progressive character? If you were to ask Father Flynn, he’d tell you Sister Beauvier is stuck in the Dark Ages, ruling her students with fear tactics when she really ought to be building relationships with them. Father Flynn’s teaching practices are more in line with what we’d expect of teachers today.
(Actually, don’t call them the Dark Ages. “Dark Ages? What Dark Ages!? Did the light go somewhere? No, no it didn’t… In this episode, Ken and Glen discuss how a very misleading term for the Middle Ages came about (hint – it has something to do with Rome!) and why it has rightly fallen out of use…by them, anyway.”)
Yet Sister Beauvier is the one who holds views contemporaneous with a 2008 audience and beyond, outraged as we are by ‘turn a blind eye’ attitudes shown once to proliferate in Catholic communities, allowing abuse to thrive. Most people living in the 1960s were as naïve as Sister James. They did not have words to describe what was happening. Scriptwriters have very cleverly given Sister Beauvier a vocabulary of her own, which she had to draw from her own environment. She uses the word ‘seduce’. Today, of a sexual predator, we would say ‘grooming’. In contrast, Sister James is representative of many church naïfs. Sister James cannot see it happening. She did not have the words, so did not have the concept. How can a man who is so friendly also be a predator? The dynamics of grooming are better-understood today, but this juxtaposition, this irony, seemed impossible to the likes of Sister James back then.
“You believe him?” Sister Beauvier asks Sister James after the first confrontation with Father Flynn.
“Of course,” Sister James replies, happy to think Donald got into the altar wine.
“Isn’t that because it’s easier to believe him?”
Irony is baked into the story structure. Doubt is basically a mystery story. We are watching carefully alongside Sister Beauvier and Sister James as they determine whether Father Flynn is culpable or not. For audiences, pieces fit together like mortise and tenon.
The irony here? Each of our empathetic main characters (Sister Beauvier and Sister James) are opposed in their views on culpability, leaving the audience in doubt by the end. Despite many parts clicking together, we never get the final piece.
Doubt is an excellent case study in how foreshadowing works, of the difference between foreshadowing and symbolism, and of the difference between foreshadowing and ‘set-up and pay-off’. This story utilises all three, working across the spectrum to great effect.
AN EXAMPLE OF FORESHADOWING
Sister James finds Sister Beauvier wrapping hessian sacking around plants to keep them safe. (That part is symbolic — she is a natural carer, of people as well as plants.)
But then Sister James conveys her concerns about Father Flynn and Donald. Walking back through the conservatory, they encounter the cook.
“Good afternoon, Mrs Carson. Why the cat?” asks Sister Beauvier.
“There’s a mouse,” says Mrs Carson, storming on through.
Mrs Carson leaves. Sister Beauvier turns to Sister James and says, “Yes it does. Yes it does.” This three-part appearance of Mrs Carson is comical, and its humour makes up for the fact that this is almost on-the-nose in its foreshadowing and symbolism. (Note, it is both.) Note that this symbolic story-within-a-story avoids looking ridiculous to the audience because a character within the story recognises the symbolism herself.
EXAMPLES OF IMAGERY
Then there’s the light-bulb, of course, which keeps blowing in Sister Beauvier’s office when someone raises their voice.
Notice also the pattern of bells: the altar boys ringing them, the interruption of the phone call in Sister Beauvier’s awkward discussion with Father Flynn and so on. Bells meaning, symbolically, ‘a call to be alert’, of course.
EXAMPLES OF SET-UP AND PAY-OFF
The set-ups and pay-offs in this film as so very subtle, audiences are not meant to pick them up unless re-watching, and with extreme vigilance to rival that of Sister Beauvier. (Scroll down for more on that.)
This is one of those stories seen far more frequently in short stories than in popular film: The story has emotional and symbolic closure but not hermeneutic closure. Stories without hermeneutic closure don’t tend to feature big, satisfying pay-offs.
A STRONG MORAL DILEMMA
Excellent stories also feature main characters who face a painful moral dilemma. What makes for a good moral dilemma? There’s no winning option. Both paths are bad. The moral dilemma of Sister Beauvier: Do I act to get rid of Father Flynn and possibly protect my charges, or do possibly make things worse for everybody? Also, is it okay to lie when it’s in service to God?
MULTIPLE LAYERS OF DOUBT
This multi-layered story asks us consider multiple meanings of ‘doubt’. Unfortunately, Doubt remains a story for modern times. No one can ever know what happens between two people in a room.
When Sister Beauvier is talking to Donald’s mother, “Oh, I doubt that.” Then she (alongside us) is surprised at the mother’s reaction. She’s wrong about Donald’s mother. She thought she’d do everything in her power to prevent the possibility of sexual abuse. But no, the prospect of failing to graduate as a Black man, and a gay one at that, is worse to the mother, who has already weighed everything up. This attitude is foreign to modern audiences as it is to Meryl Streep’s character. She has been wrong about Donald’s mother. Could she be wrong about Donald’s abuse? This is her chance to waver.
Sister Beauvier herself has conviction. Her opinions are strong. It is this exact personality type which makes her (seem) resistant to change. She knows for sure Father Flynn is guilty of abuse the moment Sister James comes to her in the potting shed. Her doubt takes a different form at the end, when she sees she has only protected her own charges. The man she believes to be predatory has been promoted, and now has access to more power and more children.
A Catholic school principal questions a priest’s ambiguous relationship with a troubled young student.logline
SETTING OF DOUBT
1964. “Last year, when President Kennedy was assassinated,” begins the new Father Flynn, grounding the audience of the film in time and also setting up the reason for his sermon on the topic of doubt: the crisis of faith that American Catholics experienced after the assassination of their president. “I want to say to you, doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.
The winds of political change are sweeping through the community, and indeed, the school has just accepted its first black student, Donald Miller.Miramax Film
This story takes place over a year, making it seem circular and also feminine. (The circular shape of narrative is more often a feminine story, foregoing a battle scene in favour of thinking and feeling through a situation, and in this case, building community.)
St. Nicholas Catholic School in The Bronx, a borough of New York.
From a dramatic viewpoint, there are few professions that grant their members entry into other lives, high among them cops, doctors, clergymen, journalists and prostitutes. Perhaps that explains why they figure in so much television and cinema. Their lives are lived in the midst of human drama.Roger Ebert
The school and surrounding built-up area of the Bronx.
Establishing and interstitial shots focus on the seasons and on the time of day, suggesting the power in the Catholic church goes far beyond a single human lifetime. The struggles we see here are struggles for power which transcend time and place. These struggles are as circular and reliable and predictable as the passing of time itself.
But in order to predict, one needs life experience. This is how the ‘weather’ (including seasons and time of day) relate, subtly, to the character of Sister Beauvier.
TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY
An early sequence shows two boys preparing for some ceremony, using equipment which is designed to look and feel timeless.
The ballpoint pen, found by a disapproving Sister Beauvier on the floor of Sister James’s classroom, stands in for the juxtaposition of old and new jockeying for position in 1960s America.
Later, Sister Beauvier will start listening to a pocket radio she confiscated from a student who was listening to it in class. This will show Sister Beauvier is human, that she is open to new ideas (despite the Strict Nun archetyping), and that she is in tune (literally, via radio waves) with the wider world. She’s starting to look outside the church, leading us towards the realisation that Sister Beauvier is starting to have doubts about the Catholic Church.
On the topic of binaries, the film features complementary colours of blues and greens versus orangey-reds.
LEVEL OF CONFLICT
The overarching struggle faced by Sister Beauvier and the other nuns: As women they are second-class citizens.
Jesus was hardly a feminist, although his recorded legend suggests he was humane toward women; but Paul was demonstrably a misogynist, and it was his tradition that became dominant as the doctrines of the Church were slowly compiled. The very notion of the Trinity expresses the most complete triumph over and expulsion of women from human culture ever created until our own times. That a male god should be able to open his mouth and speak a word, which became flesh, and his son; that the father and son should, through their mutual love, be able to create a third entity, known as the holy spirit; and that, in all of this, a woman should function rather as an oven in which the bread is baked, a mere vessel for its maturation, comprises an extraordinary myth of creation. What is even more extraordinary is that millions of people have believed it, not as a symbolic truth for a patriarchal age, but as literal truth.Marilyn French, Beyond Morals: Women, Men & Power, p104
When did monasticism begin? In 500 AD a Roman guy called Benedict went to live in a cave halfway up a cliff face because he was sick of people and all their merry-making. He had someone lower a basket of food to him. Surprisingly, others saw this and thought it looked like a good idea. A single guy living in a hole in a cliff soon became a monastery. Benedict didn’t approve of pleasure for himself, and he also liked to control other men. The monks under his control had to obey him without question and do what he asked immediately. (Sounds like a sub-dom lifestyle to me.)
Why did monasticism take off, not just in Catholicism, but across other Christian denominations and other world religions? Because prayer became commodified.
It became the custom for rich people and fighting men like the Norman soldiers, whose ways of life put their souls in such great jeopardy, to pay monks to do the praying they were too busy to do for themselves. This had one profound effect: prayer became a commodity.Terry Jones, Medieval Lives
The essential thing about monks was their religious way of life — and the fact that they lived lives of poverty, simplicity and devotion. The snag was that the poorer, simpler and more devout a particular institution was, the keener the rich and violent were to shower money and land on it to assuage their consciences. […] There was also a built-in tendency for the monastic movement to accumulate power. Even when the rulers of monasteries were ostensibly confronting the worldliness in their institutions, they simply couldn’t help becoming powers in their own right. […] The new power of the Church inevitably went together with increased splendour, wealth and political authority.Terry Jones, Medieval Lives
Yet religious men were supposed to live simple lives. A monk life started to look pretty darn cushy. In 1066 England only had about 1000 monks. But by 1215 it had thirteen thousand of them.
Monasteries eventually went the way of the dodo. Ironecally, Father Flynn in Doubt says to Sister James, “I’m not going to let her [Sister Beauvier] keep this parish in the dark ages.” This is ironic because the extreme luxury enjoyed by church men in the ‘Dark Ages’ had swung back in the general direction of aestheticism by the 20th century. By saying he was to be socially progressive, he in fact wishes to retain the gendered power imbalance enjoyed by monks in the Dark Ages. He is trying, using various methods, to shut the women up. Just like those monks in the Dark Ages.
Contemporary audiences have no special insight on this. The irony of a monastic existence in which men wielded considerable power, all the while living in the lap of luxury wasn’t lost on regular people, even during the ‘Dark Ages’. We see monasticism satirised in art. This one’s from the Early Modern era:
Here’s a much later one:
Terry Jones does an excellent job in his book Medieval Lives of explaining the hypocrisy of monastic church men in Chapter Four of his book. He also does a great job of explaining how women fit into all of this. What use were nuns to the church?
Nuns…replaced monks in people’s minds as being value for money. The clasic idea of a nunnery had been a place of retreat for well-off ladies with nowhere else to go; but in the decades that followed the Black Death the attitude to women in religious life changed dramatically. Nuns evidently chose to live by different standards from those of monks with their rich endowments and glorious buildings. People seem to have been much more conscious of this by the fifteenth century, and also to have become aware that if they were donating funds for anniversaries, for pittances, for regular prayers, for burial, women were more likely to deliver the goods. Wealthy men and women frequently made bequests to ‘the poor nuns who will pray for their souls’, and increasing numbers of women’s religious houses were founded. This suggests that women’s prayers were perceived to have more efficacy than men’s, and that donors and patrons thought nunneries were doing a better job than monasteries.Terry Jones, Medieval Lives
Terry Jones is writing about the medieval era, but the very different lives of church men versus church women persevered into the 20th century (and even now). The distinction between men and women, and the irony behind hypocrisy, is a foundational aspect of the 2008 film.
A note on the milk. Sister Beauvier has previously been seen not drinking milk while the other nuns do. Instead, Sister Beauvier is taking a headache pill or similar. While the other nuns are content with their canteen lunches, Sister Beauvier can see more than they can, and is pained by whatever she sees.
Let’s talk about the 20th century.
In a conversation with Irish Catholic author Fintan O’Toole about child abuse in the Catholic Church, Kim Hill asks whether Catholics knew it was happening. O’Toole speaks specifically about Ireland, which was the most Catholic country in the world once, but this is a story we see play out all over the world, and not just in the Catholic Church:
Kim Hill: Everybody knew. The unknown known. Ireland’s genius for knowing and not knowing at the same time. Did people know, or did they pretend not to know so they could claim not to know?
Fintan O’Toole: I think it’s a very bad answer to your question, Kim, but you have to kind of understand the psychology. So you have to remember that the vast majority of people were deeply, sincerely believing Catholics. You know, they desperately wanted the Church to be good. And they wanted to be on side with the Church, doing the right thing. My mother was a wonderful woman, a very intelligent woman, a very compassionate woman, but she lived her life according to what they told her to do because she thought that was the right thing. And that gave [abusers] incredible spiritual power, you know, people were also frightened. Young people now find it really hard to believe, but people did believe they would go to Hell. People say, “How could you be so stupid?” but if you’re brought up in a whole system of belief, it’s very very hard to step outside that and say, “No.” I mean, when I started living with my girlfriend we weren’t married. For my mother that was agony. She loved me, she loved my girlfriend, she was a lovely lovely person, she wouldn’t ever be nasty, but the agony of thinking, “Oh my god, they’re going to go to Hell!” So there was that side of it, that fear and loyalty on the one side. But in a way, the most basic question Kim was like, “What would you do?”
So, like, I know, I knew that stuff. I knew some of these guys were monsters, you know. But what were they supposed to do? Because the problem was, if you went to the police, what would the police do? Well, we know what the police did. They went to the archbishop! They don’t just go and arrest the guy. They went to the archbishop and said, “There’s a bit of a problem here, Your Grace, sorry to bother you with it but could you sort it out?” His Grace would say, “I’m very glad. You did the right thing coming to me but there won’t be any scandal. I’ll move him on.” So they would move him to another parish, where he would do exactly the same stuff. The same thing would happen over again and if it got really bad, they’d move him to America. And if it got really really really really bad, they’d move him out to the missionary movement in Africa. That’s how cynical this was.
But it also meant people felt very powerless. If you were to try to create a scandal, what would happen? Well, your kid would be to blame. Your kid would be the liar. Your family would be the family that was, you know, causing this crisis of faith for everybody else.
And I suppose, at an individual level, I think women all over the world know about this. You know, why is it when we get the #MeToo thing, for example, it suddenly becomes clear that thousands of people knew about these monsters abusers in Hollywood for example, but what’s the cost to someone who has been subjected to that kind of behaviour, to call it out? It’s huge. And that’s even in something like Hollywood.
But in a society where these people didn’t just have that kind of temporal power, economic power, they also had spiritual power. You were taking on God, if you were going to do this. That’s one of the reasons I think it just took so long for these stories to be told.Fintan O’Toole: documenting the evolutions of modern Ireland, RNZ interview
Kim Hill has interviewed people who have left cults. O’Toole agrees that 20th century Irish Catholicism can legitimately be compared to a cult. He grew up very proud to be Irish Catholic. It was them against the Church of England, which is very good at binding groups together. (Psychologists call this in-group, out-group bias, among other things, I’m sure.) To be Church of England was the worst thing you could be, because they were all going to Hell. O’Toole says that it’s only once you start to become and adult and start about your own sexuality that you start to have second-thoughts about the teachings, at which point you can either hunker down and remain in the grips of the Church, or start to move away.
This adolescent possibility of turning away really only started in the 1960s, lowkey continuing through the 70s and 80s. Still, the Catholic codes held steady.
Then O’Toole explains when things really started to change in Ireland. Right at the end of the 20th century, in 1999, an Irish journalist called Mary Rafferty (now deceased) began to change Irish opinion on the semi-hidden abuse going on inside the Catholic Church. Rafferty made a three-part documentary series called States of Fear, about what used to be called Industrial Schools (horrific institutions for children deemed delinquent). The series detailed abuse suffered by children between the 1930s and 1970s in the state childcare system of Ireland. All three episodes were broadcast on Irish television in 1999, and began a national change in thinking.
Though as O’Toole points out, everyone said, “Yeah, but we kind of knew that.” I grew up in New Zealand myself, with the same size population of Ireland’s back then, so I fully understand how connected Irish people must be. Everyone would know someone affected. Little is truly kept national secret in a population of three million.
Notice the horror film tropes. Hardly a difficult admixture, given the prevalence of Catholic imagery in the horror genre.
In 2002 Rafferty made Cardinal Secrets, which furthered public discourse.
That’s Ireland’s story. Ireland is a bit of a special case because the Irish experienced such terrible theocracy with “two competing nationalisms” with “pluralistic identity” for so many years. The backlash was commensurate.
O’Toole also points out how Ireland went from being horribly conservative to being the first in the world to legalise gay marriage in 2015, which would have been unthinkable just ten years earlier. Irish people understand that us-and-them politics leads you to a very dark place, and is about the only country in Europe right now without a right-wing anti-immigration party.
But the same basic timeline holds for my own home countries. The USA timeline also maps on.
It is extraordinary to think that the Catholic Church wielded significant, actual political, social and spiritual power, non-stop, from the fifth century. It held power for 1500 years. Then it collapsed within ten.
And that can only be true, when you think about it, if it was rotten all along. … A lot of Irish people were already living two lives. They were “amphibious”. They were living in modernity, with sex and drugs and rock n roll, while in many ways, for a long time, pretending to be Holy Catholic Ireland. Eventually, one of them had to go.Fintan O’Toole
Was it women like Sister Aloysius who brought the Church down? No, sadly, though women like that surely tried.
In the end, economics turned out to be more powerful than the [Catholic] cult.Fintan O’Toole
THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE
This refers to the land which lives inside the main characters: The imaginative landscape, the difference between what is real in the veridical world of the story and how a character perceives it — never exactly as it is, but rather influenced by their own preconceptions, biases, desires and personal histories. In what way are characters wrong about the veridical world of the story, and how will this be their downfall (or advantage)?
We see what we want to see.
STORY STRUCTURE OF DOUBT
Sister Beauvier is controlling (throws out another adult’s cough drops, considering them candy). As part of this control, she is manic vigilant. This is a term I heard an experienced teacher use when I first started high school teaching myself. What happens is this: When you first begin teaching, you’re within your own body, thinking about what you’re going to say, what you’re going to write on the board, how to pose questions. Very soon, you get used to the job and start to focus more on the students. Experienced teachers of many years are almost entirely outside their own body, working on autopilot. They’ve seen every kind of student come through their doors. They’ll know if someone has gum lodged in one side of their mouth. Ask students, and they’ll tell you these teachers have eyes in the back of their head. The ability to know what’s going on, and to predict what’s likely to happen makes their own teaching life easier in the sense that problems stop before they begin. Not all teachers become this sort of person of course, because not all teachers believe this amount of control is necessary or even desirable.
Sister Beauvier is equally vigilant at all levels. She is as vigilant about the cough drops in Sister’s desk and about a contraband ballpoint pen dropped on the floor as she is about Father Flynn. She’d be unable to turn her vigilance off, even if she tried.
Importantly, we don’t know early on whether Sister Beauvier is an Evil Strict Nun or a Kind-hearted, Morally Upright Strict Nun. This is why the script includes a very obvious Save The Cat moment. She helps an elderly nun find her cutlery at the dinner table.
Now to Sister James, the inverse of Sister Beauvier in age, experience, smarts, pessimism and vigilance.
Writers call this character a ‘foil’. A literary foil is a character whose purpose is to accentuate or draw attention to the qualities of another character, most often the main character.
But Sister James also stands in for the Common Catholic of the era. When we first meet Sister James, she is literally sitting among the people. We only know Sister James is one of the main characters in this shot because of the composition and head tilt (okay, and also because we recognise the famous actor, Amy Adams).
Inciting incidents happen at the surface, plot level and also at the character level.
WHAT CAUSES SISTER Beauvier TO BECOME SUSPICIOUS IN DOUBT?
Intuition is always right in at least two important ways. It is always in response to something. It always has your best interest at heart.Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence
Sister Beauvier has already started to become suspicious of Father Flynn before the movie even starts. This is probably because she has seen abuse in the church before, and understands how abuse works, and how her superiors cover it up. Or, it may be Father Flynn’s sermon itself, ostensibly about emotional reaction to the assassination of the president, but which Sister Beauvier suspects has a double meaning, applicable to Father Flynn personally. She is used to predicting student behaviour, suspecting everyone who walks through the door, and by God she will apply this same scrutiny to a new priest.
Later, she is watching students assemble in the ground. She watches from above, like an all-seeing eye. But we don’t know she’s watching, yet.
First she sees Father Flynn briefly touch Donald.
Next he briefly touches William. Below is his reaction. Disgust. Unlike Donald, William is a good-looking alpha boy, very much interested in girls. He has social capital. This could be the new Father testing students out to see which of the boys would be a candidate for grooming. Notice, too, the look on Jimmy’s face. A knowing look, as if the boys all know what Father Flynn is like. Behind them, two girls. After William is called away by Sister Beauvier they will say, “What’s he done? He touched Father Flynn.” Of course, they’ve got that back-to-front.
Next, the camera switches to a view of Sister Beauvier, watching from her upstairs classroom. The nice thing about photons: No one knows why, because every photon is identical as far as we understand, but half of them bounce off glass, half of them pass through. This allows for shots like this, in which Sister Beauvier is so very omniscient she blends in with the very environment itself.
What is she thinking? We don’t know at this point. Our decoding is delayed. Later we will realise why she wanted William to come with her. To save him. To offer him the opportunity to open up to her. She did him the service of making it look like he was in trouble, preserving his social capital. But we don’t know exactly what she said to him. I suspect she transformed into a kinder version of herself once she had William on his own with her. She’d have queried him obliquely, the way we see her query Sister James. “Why, is something wrong?”
This sequence happens so quickly it’s unlikely audiences pick this up on first viewing. I certainly didn’t. Doubt rewards subsequent viewings.
Next, a shot of Sister Beauvier reading a document. The document is nothing more than a blur. What is she reading? Father Flynn’s letter of recommendation, I suspect. The important takeaway: She is looking down.
Next, Father Flynn looking up. Editing suggests he is aware Sister Beauvier is watching him.
But he is revealed to be looking at the stained glass window of the church — the Eye of God. Although it is the men of the church considered closer to God, it is a woman (Sister Beauvier) who the story presents as closer to God. It is the Sister who looks down with omniscience.
So that’s the plot-level inciting incident. But Sister Beauvier changes over the course of this story. She will change from reluctant acceptance of the power hierarchies which hide abuses within the church, to having serious existential* doubts.
*Existentialism: an outlook which begins with a disoriented individual facing a confused world that they can’t accept. Existentialism’s negative side emphasizes life’s meaningless and human alienation. Think: nothingness, sickness, loneliness, nausea.
This is a mystery story at heart.
Sister Beauvier wants to keep her charges safe and cared for, from Sister Veronica who is going blind, to her students, who are vulnerable to predatory new priests.
To do that, she must know exactly what’s going on at all times. As principal, she must be the panopticon of the school.
What does Sister James want? To be a kind, caring teacher, probably unlike many of the nuns she was taught by herself. This is why people go into teaching.
A charismatic priest, Father Flynn, is trying to upend the school’s strict customs, which have long been fiercely guarded by Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the iron-gloved Principal who believes in the power of fear-based discipline.Miramax Film
Niceness is a decision, a strategy of social interaction; it is not a character trait.
We must learn and then teach our children that niceness does not equal goodness. Niceness is a decision, a strategy of social interaction; it is not a character trait. People seeking to control others almost always present the image of a nice person in the beginning. Like rapport-building, charm and the deceptive smile, unsolicited niceness often has a discoverable motive.Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence
We don’t know whether Sister James will ultimately prove to be on the side of Sister Beauvier, or turn into someone who would prefer to look the other way, sitting content on a low-rung of a patriarchal system of power designed to protect abusers.
Denial is a save now, pay later scheme.
The solution to violence in America is the acceptance of reality.Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence
Only human beings can look directly at something, have all the information they need to make an accurate prediction, perhaps even momentarily make the accurate prediction, and then say that it isn’t so.Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence
When Sister James, a hopeful innocent, shares with Sister Beauvier her guilt-inducing suspicion that Father Flynn is paying too much personal attention to Donald, Sister Beauvier sets off on a personal crusade to unearth the truth and to expunge Flynn from the school.Miramax Film
SISTER Beauvier’S PLAN
Sister Beauvier is reliant upon a whisper network of women. Here she is, calling Donald’s mother into school. She hasn’t factored in the role of race. First, she’s asking a lot of a mother on low-paid waged work by asking her to come in to school during work hours. Second, she has not factored in the dark arithmetic of Donald’s mother: Is it better to be abused by one man, or by his own father, or by a white supremacist wider society?
Notice the tilt shot following this scene as Sister Beauvier returns to her office. She’s been affected by the conversation.
Sister James also had the tilt-shot treatment in her conversation with Father Flynn, who tried to convince her of his kindness and love. Sister James says, “Everything feels upside down.” Both sisters are trying to make sense of the world via conversations with others. Both are disturbed.
The tilt shot is a very subtle form of Impairment Shot, described at TV Tropes. An impairment shot can also indicate hallucinations, drugged states and so on.
In this scene, a man tries to point something out to a woman so she doesn’t have to worry about it anymore. For woman viewers, the first time this happens is excruciating to watch. Normally, life (and Hollywood) works more like this:
Seeing-Eye Man: Function performed by most men in Hollywood feature films. Involves a series of shots in which (1) the man sees something, (2) he points it out to the woman, and (3) she then sees it, too, often nodding in agreement, gratitude, amusement or relief.Ebert’s Guide to Practical Filmgoing: A Glossary of Terms for the Cinema of the ’80s
The tilt shot shows how the second time Father Flynn tries it on Sister James, she appears to buy it, but doesn’t really.
FATHER FLYNN’S PLAN: TRIANGULATION AND GROOMING
Triangulation is a term in psychology most closely associated with the work of Murray Bowen known as family therapy. Bowen theorized that a two-person emotional system is unstable, in that under stress it forms itself into a three-person system or triangle.
Father Flynn is grooming boys in Sister James’ class, so he must also groom Sister James. She’s an easy target, new to the school and new to teaching.
THE BIG STRUGGLE
Without a shard of proof besides her moral certainty, Sister Beauvier locks into a battle of wills with Father Flynn which threatens to tear apart the community with irrevocable consequences.Miramax Film
Sister Beauvier tells Father Flynn about the incident which made her wonder whether he is a sexual abuser. Father Flynn scoffs. “Is that all?”
“That is all,” she admits.
The question for the audience: Is a hunch enough?
Later, in the satisfying scene when Sister Beauvier shouts at Father Flynn, the hand symbolism comes full circle, affording insight into how Father Flynn justifies abuse to his own self. He conflates ‘healing hands’ with ‘powerful hands, covering up wrongdoing’: “Whatever I have done, I have left in the healing hands of the Father.”
Note, too, how Father Flynn’s dialogue is the perfect toxic-Catholic twist on DARVO: Deny, attack; reverse victim and offender. Rather than reversing victim and offender, he tells Sister Beauvier that she and he are ‘the same’, since she has also had things to confess in her lifetime. (That’s the Catholic twist.)
Sister Beauvier recognises the pattern though the culture does not yet have the concept of DARVO. She doesn’t buy it. “You and I are not the same.”
I had to look up what Sister Beauvier meant when she said, “Mental reservations?” Father Flynn has, again, denied giving Donald wine to drink.
Mental reservation (or mental equivocation) is an ethical theory and a doctrine in moral theology that recognizes the “lie of necessity”, and holds that when there is a conflict between justice and veracity, it is justice that should prevail.
It was argued in moral theology, and now in ethics, that mental reservation was a way to fulfil obligations both to tell the truth and to keep secrets from those not entitled to know them (for example, because of the seal of the confessional or other clauses of confidentiality). Mental reservation, however, is regarded as unjustifiable without grave reason for withholding the truth. This condition was necessary to preserve a general idea of truth in social relations.Wikipedia
Of course, a central idea of this story revolves around truth. Each of the three main characters carries their own version of the truth, and each of these three characters believes their own version whole-heartedly.
Father Flynn is grooming a vulnerable student, but doesn’t see his actions as abuse. He only sees it as love. Sister Aloysius is faced with a terrible moral dilemma: She can’t possibly see what may have gone on behind closed doors, and must instead rely on experience, intuition and the vaguest of visual clues. The young Sister James is unable to sit with the cognitive dissonance of believing a friendly, self-described loving and progressive man as a predatory pederast. So she decides to believe Father Flynn when he grooms her, as well as the rest of the community.
This storytelling technique comes from the Impressionist tradition and has been called ‘literary parallax‘.
The big battle scene ends with one of the most satisfying lines in cinematic history:
“Sister, where’s your compassion?”
“Nowhere you can get at it.”
Meryl Streep, in acting Sister Beauvier, has just picked up a black (Black) woollen garment/rug, balled it up and cradled it to her breast like a baby, all the while telling the Father exactly what she thinks of him.
The stage play had the longer title Doubt: A Parable. A parable is a succinct, didactic story, in prose or verse, which illustrates one or more instructive lessons or principles.
What is the parable telling us?
The audience never does learn whether Father Flynn is culpable or not. Backshadowing (applying what I know proliferated in Catholic churches around the world) influences my own interpretation, as does the fact that Sister Beauvier has not once been wrong about anything significant, so why would she be wrong about this?
She could easily be wrong about the particulars. But I believe she is right to trust her intuition, which is more than ‘intuition’. It’s what Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. We know things at a subconscious level, after many years of learning.
Why are some people brilliant decision makers, while others are consistently inept? Why do some people follow their instincts and win, while others end up stumbling into error? How do our brains really work–in the office, in the classroom, in the kitchen, and in the bedroom? And why are the best decisions often those that are impossible to explain to others? In Blink we meet the psychologist who has learned to predict whether a marriage will last, based on a few minutes of observing a couple; the tennis coach who knows when a player will double-fault before the racket even makes contact with the ball; the antiquities experts who recognize a fake at a glance.marketing copy of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
Donald is the most obvious student to watch closely because he is the mostly obviously different. But we have seen Sister Beauvier keep a close but silent watch over William London. She thinks his bleeding noses might be self-induced.
Careful re-watching of the inciting incident has shown Jimmy and William share some secret knowledge about Father Flynn, even if it has never been voiced.
Or was the target Tommy Conroy? On his way back to class, turned away by Sister Beauvier, he exclaims “This is bullshit!”
Why? Is he in the process of early grooming, craving attention from Father Flynn, jealous to have suddenly been replaced? It’s possible Father Flynn was attempting to groom all four of these boys, throwing spaghetti at the wall, predicting one of them will show himself open to exploitation. “What’s going on?” he asks. The question itself shows he probably knows something the adults do not. This question mirrors the question Sister Beauvier had, directed at Sister James: “Why, is something wrong?”
Sister Beauvier could be right about predation but wrong about the predator’s target. Father Flynn could be abusing someone else entirely, some kid not shown to the audience.
We are supposed to sit with the discomfort of not knowing for sure, because in real life, we can never know for sure. We are all making judgements and forming convictions based on incomplete information.
The parable is a fairly complex piece of advice: Sometimes you can never know exactly what happened when you weren’t there to see, but hunches aren’t based on nothing. Rely on intuition. Act accordingly, in service of those with less power. Question authority always. Rely on your whisper network. Don’t expect to win.
Symbolically, Father Flynn delivers a sermon and tells the parish “The wind is taking me away.”
Father Flynn has presented himself as a traveling angel a la those old Western stories (man rides into town, saves the day, leaves) but now we know Father Flynn is a blow-in devil instead, going from place to place wreaking havoc. Hence the imagistic pattern of wind.
Now it is snowing. No wind. Everything is still, under a blanket.
Doubts: Is the Catholic church really doing more harm than good? Has she devoted her life to the right cause? Can she stay in it, when she knows (from the case of Sister Veronica) that the church will not look after her in old age?
This picture is from the Middle Ages. I think Sister Beauvier would appreciate it.
DOES THE STORY GIVE US ENOUGH INFORMATION TO KNOW THE TRUTH?
I believe it does, but the viewer must be as vigilant as Sister Beauvier. Notice how Sister Beauvier immediately sprung upon a forbidden hair-accessory worn by Noreen Horan? Sister Beauvier would also notice if a boy was not wearing his t-shirt.
A commenter on Reddit believes Father Flynn is abusing Donald, and cites the example of the t-shirt.
- Donald and Jimmy serve mass, ringing the bell while Father Flynn does his thing.
- Briefly, afterwards, we are shown a glimpse of Donald sitting on the stairs, watching Father Flynn through the bannisters. Look at what he’s wearing. He has changed out of the cassock and back into his white school button-down shirt. Notice what he’s wearing underneath. His t-shirt. Both garments are white, so you can see where the sleeve ends.
- Note that Jimmy has not yet changed out of his cassock. Jimmy has a brief interaction with Father Flynn. This scene seems to do very little, and at first I wondered the reason for its inclusion. But here we see Jimmy in his cassock, so we know Donald has only just changed out of his. This helps viewers with the timeline. The ceremony has recently ended. But ALSO: The boys wear white t-shirts underneath their cassocks. You can see Jimmy’s t-shirt very clearly. When boys change clothing between cassock and school uniform, they leave their t-shirts on. There is literally no reason to take them off during the school day.
- Father Flynn returns Donald’s t-shirt to Donald’s locker. Why is Sister James so suspicious, despite being an innocent-minded person? Why does the dance music deepen ominously to signal a change in Sister James’s mood? Because she would know there was no reason for any student to be out of a t-shirt at any time during the school day.
Ergo, Father Flynn had possession of a boy’s t-shirt when there was zero explainable reason for the boy to have been out of it. Father Flynn was present when Donald had his clothes off.
If so, when did Father Flynn carry out his abuse that day?
During Sister James’ history lesson. Donald is called to the rectory during the next class, taught by Sister James.
Next, the film-makers performed a sleight of hand. While we’re enjoying a light, comical scene about a boy called Raymond dancing the mashed potato when he’s supposed to be learning the bossa nova, we fail to notice who is not there. Donald is still not back from rectory. A high angle shot of the class shows us all the students in the room, for a reason.
Being new to teaching, Sister James hasn’t considered why Donald is still not back for the following lesson. This is something Sister Beauvier would have noticed had she been in charge of the Year Eights. But Father Flynn wouldn’t dare touch the boys under the care of a teacher like Sister Beauvier.
The wine timeline doesn’t add up, either. Sister James didn’t notice alcohol on Donald’s breath, or any sign of distress until after he’d been called to the rectory. Was this for lack of noticing? The film has made sure to show us how she has stepped outside herself by this stage of her teaching career. She notices students in the photograph of the Pope, becoming a little more like the vigilant Sister Beauvior, who is training her. It is therefore likely that Sister James would have noticed earlier, had Donald been a little drunk in her history class.
And when Mrs Miller is called in to school she tells Sister Beauvier, “He fell down there, but he’s a good boy sister, pretty much down the line.” Because Mrs Miller is willing to own he did fall down there, I believe her.
Remember also, Sister Beauvier told Sister James she doesn’t normally give Year Eights to beginning teachers, but she’s got no other option. I take it she’d rather be keeping an eye on the Year Eights herself, or give them to someone who can keep a closer eye. But she must work with the staff she’s been given. Instead, she trains Sister James herself. Teachers these days do regular, mandatory sessions on child protection. In the 1960s, it was up to older teachers to act voluntarily as mentor. Some were better than others. Sister Beauvier was one of the best.
I love this story because we don’t hear about the people who tried to stand up to power and quietly lost their battles. The character of Sister Beauvier is perhaps functioning as a wish-fulfilment character, but I like to think there were many strong nuns just like her.
Why was this story written in the twenty-noughts? Because the Catholic Church was finally starting to be held accountable for past abuses. This story serves as an evergreen warning: Pay attention. Pay especial attention to the children and other vulnerable people under your care.