In 1964, John Kennedy has been dead for a year. The trauma of his assassination shook the community of St. Nicholas, a private Catholic academy in the Bronx, as they are reminded by Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). In a sermon on “doubt,” especially, the good that might come out of doubt, he offers his parishioners hope in the midst of fear and uncertainty. It is exactly during a time of “profound despair,” he pronounces, “a time of people sitting together, bound together by a common feeling of hopelessness,” that faith is reaffirmed, in the public sharing of calamity. In this sharing, he says, “doubt can be as powerful and sustaining as certainty.”
As Father Flynn speaks during this first scene in Doubt, his listeners respond variously: some are rapt, others distracted, and one little boy has the temerity to chat with his pew-mate. Not to worry: along comes Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), who raps the child in the back of the head, commanding his attention and announcing her function — as the film’s resident super-certain, super-strict bitch-on-wheels of a nun. If she doesn’t quite tip over into Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You territory, Sister Aloysius is yet a too-familiar caricature, sometimes very funny (as when she complains about the ball point pens that have found their way into St. Nicholas classrooms), at others, nightmarish. And, as she clashes with the younger, more liberal Father Flynn, she incarnates the brute force of unquestioning fealty to rules and rituals.
Observing this clash is Sister James (Amy Adams). Sweet-faced and sing-songy, she sympathizes with her students, both shy and rambunctious, and does her best to follow edicts by Sister Aloysius while appreciating the warmth she sees in Father Flynn. As the designated audience surrogate in John Patrick Shanley’s movie, which he adapted from his own Pulitzer-prize-winning play, Sister James also embodies her historical moment: she’s a very white, very naïve girl, yearning to believe, adhering to tradition, and yet also inspired by a changing world.
For Sister James, one close-to-home instance of this change is Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), new to St. Nicholas and the only black student in sight. Diffident and polite, Donald aspires to be a priest, or so he tells Father Flynn, who smiles warmly and bestows on him a gift, a tiny spinning ballerina whose tutu lifts up as she spins. It’s an odd toy and even odder moment: as Father Flynn instructs Donald to keep their exchange a secret, the film leaves open the possibility that their relationship is untoward, even, as Sister Aloysius will soon assert, that Father Flynn is molesting the boy. As Donald has very little to say about an of this, the film becomes a swirl of innuendo and interpretation, assumption and righteousness, as the adults scramble to discover and assert order.
The kinds of orders they seek indicate basic, unsubtle differences, between past and future, intolerance and openness, conviction and… well… doubt. Most patently, these differences appear to be gendered and institutional: the priests, Father Flynn at the head of the table, drink wine, smoke cigars, and tell raucous jokes, liking life and each other; by contrast, the nuns stare at austere place settings, heads bowed as Sister Aloysius holds forth on her suspicions, their silverware clinking as they pick at their dinners. The lack of fun among the girls makes Sister James’ efforts to connect with her history class students, to forgive them small trespasses and encourage curiosity and questions, both sane and wondrous. Echoing Father Flynn’s efforts to befriend the children, she admirably seeks to help “someone like” Donald (the lonely, isolated, and beaten-at-home black child) make his way in a hostile environment.
At the same time, Sister James is confronted by a couple of unreadable moments, including Donald’s upset following a visit to Father Flynn’s office, which she reports to Sister Aloysius. The older nun does not hesitate to decipher what she’s told, assuming Father Flynn’s criminality based on his displays of freethinking mushiness. Their increasingly loud confrontations in his office are highly dramatized, the camera low and canted, the shadows ominous (in a seeming aside, the light bulb directly overhead goes out with a zap; as the father perches to fix it, she peers at him with contempt). In one scene, Sister James sits literally between them, sipping tea and hoping to keep her head low; in another, the camera swings around as the adversaries bark at once another: “I can’t say everything,” says father Flynn, “There are things I can’t say… Where is your compassion?” Ferocious, Sister Aloysius declares, “Nowhere you can get at it.”
Ugly and unconvincing, these collisions are all but forgotten in light of the scene that is already the movie’s most notorious, that is, a confrontation between Sister Aloysius and Donald’s mother. First, amid all the movie’s scenery-chewers, Viola Davis offers a most welcome and affecting performance, a mother caught up among so many bad choices that she’s trying to imagine her way out on the spot, on a rainy Bronx sidewalk during her brief lunch hour. As Sister Aloysius pounds her with moral absolutes, Mrs. Miller stands before her, solid, tearful, and raw. Noting that her son has no future economic or social recourses, plus life with an abusive father, she pleads with Sister Aloysius to understand, to see past her self-affirming judgments. For a moment, it sounds as if she’s pleading with her to let the friendly father do what he must, temporarily, in order to ensure her son’s eventual escape from his own home.
The sister’s face betrays her disbelief, her uncertainty as to what she’s just heard, her inability to reconcile the multiple horrors and systemic oppressions facing Donald and understood, at some terrible level, by his mother. This moment reveals more about Sister Aloysius than Mrs. Miller or her son, but it’s a moment she cannot comprehend.