Sunday, May 8, 2016
SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
I hope you don’t have doubts about the length of this post. But, there is a lot going on in this movie. The title of this 2008 film says it all. John Patrick Shanley, who directed the movie and adapted his Pulitzer Prize-winning play for the screen, said he hoped that the audience would “transcend” the mystery aspect of the story and think about how does one act in a world of uncertainty to know how to benefit fellow human beings. To provide definitive answers to the questions raised in this story would defeat the purpose of the writing of it. Thus, as soon as we think we have the characters figured out they provide a twist to their personalities that cause us to shift our conclusions.
The tale takes place in 1964 in an Italian/Irish Roman Catholic neighborhood in the Bronx. Donald is an altar boy worried that he looks fat in his church garments; he is insecure about his appearance. Could he possibly doubt his attractiveness to the celebrator of the mass, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman)? In the church, Flynn says the topic of his sermon is “Doubt.” He talks about how the assassination in the prior year of President John F. Kennedy, a catholic, could cause people to have doubts about what they believe. But, Flynn says, they were all sharing the tragedy together, so there was comradeship in the loss. People were not alone. And, he says, even individual everyday doubts are shared by all people, so no one should feel alone in these questioning times. He says, “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.”
To sanction doubt is an unusual argument to make for a sermon in a church, especially a catholic one (this I know from personal experience), since possibly one of the main purposes of religion is to provide the relief of absolute certainty as to what to believe and how to live, thus warding off the anguish of agonizing over varying answers to disturbing questions. After all, didn’t Christ chastise his “Doubting Thomas?” But, the people of this country, and especially the catholic citizens, had the security of their world shattered by the violent loss of their beloved leader, the first catholic president of the United States. So, given the context, the topic of the sermon may be appropriate.
Not so for Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep, in, my opinion, her best performance), the principal (of principles?) of the school associated with this church. She is the queen of certainty here. And, for certainty to continue to reign there is no room for doubt. She cannot exist in insecurity, nor, in her opinion, can the Catholic Church. She is the Christian cop when it comes to being vigilant in maintaining adherence to the rules of her religion, thus preventing any drifting into unsettling, uncharted waters. She patrols the pews during mass, making sure all the children do not talk or snooze, which can lead to straying away from the well-worn religious path into a forest of multiple routes determined individually. She criticizes Sister James (Amy Adams) because she finds a ballpoint pen in the latter’s class. These writing devices indicate selfish laziness, and, thus, penmanship overall has declined. Cough drops are considered by her to be “candy,” which means children using them indulge their physical appetites, leading to uncontrollable, and thus, less certain, patterns of behavior. Later, she condemns Father Flynn for liking his tea very sweet and using a ballpoint pen. She gives a chastising look at Sister James for spitting out a piece of unsavory meat at dinner. To her, food is for nourishment, not for enjoyment, which leads to self-indulgence, elevating the individual above its place in the scheme of things. To her these tendencies represent change, and change allows too many variables that can undermine reassuring certainty in a belief system.
There are numerous references to wind in the story, and in this case, it is the winds of change that Sister Aloysius fears. She does not like windows open in Sister James’ classroom or in her office, allowing the wind to blow in. She tells the handyman after a wind-blown large branch caused a sister to fall that “The wind has changed,” and for her, the changes are not for the better. A wind gust spins leaves around Sister Aloysius after her confrontation with Mrs. Miller who astounds the sister with her tolerance of possible inappropriate behavior between her son and Father Flynn. The wind represents something uncontrollable. It can knock your hat off, exposing you to what you don’t want to see. Streep said that to emphasize her character’s narrow-mindedness, she scrunched her bonnet, making it look as if she had blinders on. Amy Adams said that the nuns she talked with in preparation for her role had their own individual ways of tying on their rosaries, but each said their own way was the right way. This anecdote is an indication that people seek security in certainties to avoid being unsure of what to do, even though the reality indicates that there are no absolute right and wrong ways to act.
Sister James represents innocence in the film. She can’t believe that one of her students, William London (Michael Roukis), would give himself a nosebleed, just to get out of class. She wants to believe Father Flynn is innocent of any crimes. She does not like to be cynical of human behavior, like Sister Aloysius, who urges her to use a picture of the Pope on the blackboard, not for religious inspiration, but to use the glass covering to spy on the class as she writes with her chalk. (The principal would be right at home in the NSA). Aloysius asked the nuns to be on alert after Father Flynn’s sermon on doubt, because it made him seem suspicious. Sister James says, “It is unsettling to look at people with suspicion. I feel less close to God.” To which, Sister Aloysius says, “When you take a step to address wrongdoing, you are taking a step away from God. But, in his service.” Aloysius’ statement sounds like we should act for the greater good. But, it can also mean the ends justify the use of some unscrupulous means, as we witness later. Aloysius says her certainty comes from her “experience” and that she “knows” people. But, knowing, in the biblical sense, is carnal, sinful, and thus, ironically, Sister Aloysius is a fallen woman who immerses herself in the muck of the world to clean it up, but who cannot come out unstained. Perhaps that is why she sees, with darting eyes, sin everywhere undermining the solidity of her belief system. She even says that the song “Frosty the Snowman” fosters a pagan belief in magic.
It is also ironic that she enters St. James’ classroom just as the line from Franklin Roosevelt about having nothing to fear but fear itself is discussed. Sister James later tells her that all the students are terrified of the principal, whose response is, “Yes, that’s how it works.” One response to that would be, how does what work? Fascism works that way, establishing a world totally without doubt, but also without the freedom to question anything, too. Roosevelt was trying to urge people to overcome fear, not to give into its paralysis of the human spirit.
But, we are also shown that Sister Aloysius’ realistic outlook about the unholy nature of people can be true. William London does give himself a nosebleed so he can escape school, and indulge in underage cigarette smoking. He sneaks over to a girl’s desk when the teacher is facing the blackboard, and he is rude to other students. Which brings us to the suspicions concerning Father Flynn. After the sermon at the beginning of the movie, Donald tells Flynn that he would like to become a priest. The Father gives him a curious gift which is a miniature ballerina that spins as a tiny mirror is placed next to the dancer. Is this sort of effeminate gift hinting at a homosexual subtext? Since it appears to be a trick the way the toy works, does it imply Flynn is tricking the boy, grooming him for seduction? We have no proof, but Shanley plants doubts about the priest’s intentions, which the audience is susceptible to given the recent investigations exposing the Catholic Church’s harboring of pedophiles. Also, Flynn hesitates while staring at a stain glass window with an eye in it looking down at him. Does he feel that the eye of God sees what he is and is judging him? The student William flinches and pulls away from Flynn when he touches the boy to see if the child’s hands are dirty. The audience sees him react the same way at the gym where Flynn coaches basketball and lectures the students on keeping their fingernails clean. Is William’s reaction because he is a problem kid who doesn’t like the Father’s signaling him out? Father Flynn says he likes to keep his nails a little long, and later, Sister Aloysius tells him to cut his nails. Demons and vampires have been depicted as having long fingernails resembling talons. Are we to believe Flynn to be demonic? When the classmates ask Flynn about a girl turning down a boy’s invitation to the dance, the Father says that when all the girls turn you down, you become a priest. William’s reaction is a turning away and a shaking of the head. Did Flynn make advances on William and that is why he cringes at his touch? Does he scoff at his joke because he knows the man prefers young boys? Later, when Flynn says goodbye to the parishioners, William smiles; is he happy that this threat is gone? Or, is he glad that he doesn’t have to deal with the priest pointing out his shortcomings?
Sister Aloysius saw William’s initial pulling away, and along with the “Doubt” sermon believes Flynn is guilty of being a pederast. Again, she tells Sister James that she has experience coming across this perversion before. Because she told the nuns to observe anything suspicious, Sister James notes that Donald was called into the rectory to meet with Father Flynn, and was upset when he came back to class. He put his head down on the desk, and there was alcohol on his breath. Later, she saw Flynn put Donald’s undershirt in the boy’s locker. She reluctantly reports her observations to the principal.
Sister Aloysius is now convinced that Flynn is a predator. She sets up a bogus meeting about the Christmas pageant to trap him. She says because Donald is the only African American boy in the school, he should not be exhibited too much in the show, nor hidden. Flynn says he should be treated like all the other students, but Aloysius says Flynn already signaled him out for special treatment by calling for him to go to the rectory. Sister Aloysius turns the meeting into an interrogation. She opens the blinds so that the sunlight shines onto Flynn’s face like a bright lamp used in the grilling of a suspect. (She doesn’t like it when, as Sister James later questions her motives, one of her ceiling lights burns out. She replaces the bulb later, which goes out again. It’s as if she doesn’t want any dimness which would symbolize uncertainty in her moral vision). She has Sister James relate her observations. Flynn says that Donald became inebriated drinking the sacramental wine. It is ironic that the wine is supposed to represent Christ’s blood used to nourish souls, but here was used for what someone like Aloysius would consider the satisfaction of a baser appetite. Flynn felt compassion for the boy, and didn’t want to expose him which would lead to him being dismissed as an altar boy, which is what must now happen. He says the boy left his undershirt behind and Flynn did not want to cause him further embarrassment so he dropped off the piece of clothing.
Sister James is relieved by Father Flynn’s explanation, returning her to what Aloysius calls her innocent “simplicity.” For Aloysius, humans brought about their banishment from that simplicity of not knowing sin in the Garden of Eden, and now we have to deal with it. But, in a meeting, appropriately in the church’s garden, Father Flynn tells Sister James to hold onto her purity. She deals with innocent children and the only way to respond to them is with love and kindness. He says that Donald was a boy in trouble, and he was just trying to show the boy compassion. He tells her, obviously referring to Aloysius’ deep immersion in the fallen world, that “There are people who go after your humanity, Sister, that tell you that the light in your heart is a weakness. Don’t believe it. It is an old tactic of cruel people who kill kindness in the name of virtue.” This sounds like an indictment of Aloysius’ statement about stepping away from God to do his service. Later, Sister James observes students deliberately banging into Donald, his books and Flynn’s gift dashed to the floor. Father Flynn helps the boy gather up his belongings, and the priest gives him a long hug. Caught between her own innocence and Sister Aloysius’ suspicious nature, she can view this scene as either an act of generosity or one of depravity. And, so can we.
Sister Aloysius is not satisfied with Flynn’s explanation, and meets with Donald’s mother to get more information. There are a few surprises about the nun in these scenes. When Mrs. Miller (Viola Davis) enters, she finds Sister Aloysius listening to a transistor radio she confiscated from a boy in Sister James’ class. She says she is addicted to it, an unusual admission from someone who is against change, even the invention of the ballpoint pen. However, she is not so heretical that she listens to music, only to the news stories. She also surprises Mrs. Miller by telling her that she was married before becoming a nun. So, the principal, despite her belief that those in the religious orders should be considered to be on a separate level from the lay people, actually is not that different from them. She champions against giving into human appetites, yet has been sexually intimate in her past. But, then again, she said that her “experience” allows her to understand transgressors.
However, she does not comprehend Mrs. Miller’s attitude of nonintervention when she tells her that that the relationship between Father Flynn and her son is inappropriate. The mother says she is grateful the priest looked out for her boy when he was caught drinking the wine. When Aloysius says that Flynn is the kind of man that chases boys, the mother says that some boys want to be caught. She says that her husband beats Donald because of his “nature.” We now understand that Donald has gay tendencies, and in 1964, most considered this an abomination. His mother voices a modern, anti-Catholic Church, belief when she says “You can’t hold a child responsible for what God gave him to be.” Mrs. Miller sent her boy to the catholic school to get him away from harassment at the public school and only wants him to graduate in June when he can go to a good high school. She tells the Sister that he needs a man to care for her son. Of course, Aloysius says it can’t be in that way. When the principal threatens to remove Donald from the school, the mother tells the nun that if the situation becomes public, Donald will suffer because his father will kill him with his beatings. Mrs. Miller hits at Aloysius’ need for certainty about the crime of which she is convinced in the absence of concrete evidence. Concerning the true nature of the relationship between the priest and her son she asks, “Why do you have to know something like that when you don’t?” Here, being in doubt will be the kinder way to go, at least for her boy. We do see Sister Aloysius’ compassion here, because she is appalled that the father beats his son. She sees the need to protect him.
The scenes with Mrs. Miller also emphasize the gender issue brought up in the film. The mother is known only as “Mrs. Miller,” showing her subservient status in the society. She understands the reality of the male-dominated world when she says that the nun will not be able to win against the man in a robe who has the power. The audience sees that the nuns eat in reverent silence at dinner, drinking only milk. The priests have a sumptuous meal, accompanied by alcoholic drinks, cigarettes, and raucous laughter. When Father Flynn is in the principal’s office, he sits at her chair, usurping her authority. She must serve him tea, although she admits she is rusty at doing so. Sister Aloysius tries to protect one of the older nuns who she is afraid will be banished supposedly to some retirement home by the male hierarchy if her developing blindness is discovered.
Aloysius knows the male chain of command, but she is now willing to go against it, breaking rules she has upheld, in her crusade against the man who she is convinced is guilty. When Father Flynn confronts her after he sees her with Mrs. Miller, she basically says she has the goods on him. He has been at three different parishes in the prior five years. She says she talked to a nun at his prior assignment, and found out he has a history of improprieties. He was the one who didn’t want the Catholic Church to dwell in the Dark Ages, and appeared to be a reformer in terms of wanting secular songs at Christmas and breaking down barriers between clergy and parishioners. But, he now becomes the one who defends the system and she appears as the rebel. He plays the church male dominance card, telling her that she should have talked to the pastor, not a nun. He says, “You have no right to act on your own. You have taken vows, obedience being one! You answer to us! You have no right to step outside the church!” But, she is willing to do just that at this point. She says, “I will step outside the church if that’s what needs to be done … though I’m damned to hell!” He says that she has no proof. She says she has her “certainty.” She promises to be relentless, going to families to expose his sins. He realizes that he is unable to stop her. He says that he can’t tell her everything. What does he mean by that? Perhaps Flynn is gay, and he saw a child who suffered as he did as a youth, and only wanted to show that he was not alone. Or, is he on the verge of confessing that he did give the boy the wine to make it easier to seduce him? In any event, Aloysius is able to get him to leave without making a public scandal, thus protecting Donald.
At the end of the film, Sister James, after returning from caring for her ill brother, talks with Sister Aloysius in that same church garden. She says that although Flynn is gone, the male power structure has promoted him, making him a pastor at his next parish. She admits now that she made no such call to a nun at a prior parish. She lied in order to, she believes, get at the truth. The ends justified the means. She says that her lie would have had no force if the priest was not guilty. “His resignation was his confession,” she tells Sister James. But, is it? In a sermon about gossip, Father Flynn gave an analogy to a pillow being ripped and the feathers flying everywhere, impossible to be gathered up once released. The lie takes on a life of its own, as it did in the Salem Witch Trials, as it did during the period of McCarthyism. Maybe Flynn realized that proving there was a lie was harder than Aloysius proving there was a crime.
Sister James says that she wished she was like Aloysius, because she can’t sleep anymore, and it implies that maybe certainty allows rest from struggle over doubts. But, the principal says, “Maybe we’re not supposed to sleep so well.” Maybe she, too, can’t sleep. She admits that stepping away from God to do his service comes at a price. Maybe her vigilance has caused her only to see the evil in the world and has cut her off from observing what Flynn called the light of “humanity.” Could that be the reason that Sister Aloysius starts to cry and admits that she, too, has doubts, “such doubts?”
The next film is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?