By David Poland email@example.com
Review – Doubt, Part Two – SPOILERS
The great question of Doubt is, “Did he… or didn’t he?”
My thoughts… ALL SPOILER… after the jump…
My feeling about what Father Flynn did or didn’t do evolved in the second viewing of the film. The first time, I was more taken with the old school shifty-eye movie tricks, especially with the kids. Father Flynn’s sweaty self-awareness made him seem like he as doing something wrong. And there is the ultimate red herring… Flynn leaving the school.
But I have to say, I didn’t think he molested that boy or any other in either viewing.
In my first viewing, my feeling was that both Flynn and Donald Muller were gay and that the whispers came with people instinctually feeling that. Flynn joining the priesthood as an alternative to having a gay life seemed perfectly realistic to the time. Muller’s history is laid out by his mother. There is no reason to think that being gay somehow makes a man more likely to seek out sex with a child.
I have been as strong an advocate of the docs about child molestation in the church as anyone. I have seen various incarnations of Deliver Us From Evil and discussed the issues and how the victims and victimizer are framed in some detail. I am not the expert on this that, say, Los Angeles prosecutors are. But I have a pretty good idea of what many of the behaviors of the abused look like. And I didn’t see any of them in Doubt.
There is plenty of content in the film, in less dramatic scenes, that shows where the relationships between the characters are. A pedophilia cliché is the plying of the child with gifts. There is a gift here, but there is no sense at all that it is being given with strings or the hope of them. Likewise, when Donald suffers – for the first time we are seeing it – abuse from a fellow student, we get two different glimpses. First, before his books are knocked to the floor, Flynn and Donald make eye contact and Flynn retreats into his office, clearly afraid of any eyes that might be watching him have any contact with this child. But after the attack, Flynn embraces the child, even before helping him clean up his books. The intimacy shared by these two people doesn’t have the power-laden overtones of a victim and victimizer, but of a real intimacy. Flynn is where Donald finds a level of safety.
Now… one could argue that Donald has fallen in love with his first lover and that this is what I am seeing in that scene. But when we look to other parts of the film, we certainly see no signs of that kind of romantic notion in Donald’s head. Moreover, the discussion of the sacramental wine would indicate that Flynn pulled Donald out of a class and then needed to get him drunk on sacramental wine in order to obtain sex. He then would have had to have sent Donald back to class with wine on his breath and with some great unhappiness on his head, as he acted sad and disconnected according to Sister James. In addition, Father Flynn would have to have told the church’s caretaker about the child drinking wine… why?
But mostly, does the intimacy of the moment in the hallway match the relationship in which Flynn gets a child drunk, has sex of some kind with him, and sends him back to class?
The second time I saw the film, things got clearer for me…
Father Flynn could be gay… but I no longer think it is a clear piece of the subtext. It is really, really clear. Father Flynn has committed some form of mortal sin in his past. It is clear, as Sister Aloysius picks up, that there is a personal stake in the first sermon about doubt… some sort of guilt. She too carries at least one mortal sin in her past, which she does not describe. But after the loss of her husband in the war and her commitment to the church, she has determined that 100% conviction is her strength.
And this is when it started to occur to me that Father Flynn is a sort of Jesus character in the story… having to suffer/die for her sin of conviction so that she may move forward towards a greater truth… a truth that requires that she doubt herself.
It seems to me that Flynn has been through the ringer of not only his self-doubt but the doubt of others who would condemn him even without any actual information. And in the end, we have to decide for ourselves whether he fled out of guilt… or if he turned the other cheek. Did he leave the school because he was afraid of being found out or because he could see that Sister Aloysius’ relentlessness, regardless of the facts in front of her, would never be satisfied and that even if she someday was convinced completely, others would be left with doubts about him? Do we, as an audience, assume that the nun who was allegedly called from his last parish, might have had some real information… or as in the story we are watching, simply have ideas about the non-existent she thinks could be the case with Father Flynn?
One of the things left out of the film that would not, I don’t think, have improved things would be the experience of Flynn in dealing with his bosses in the church. It might have offered more answers, especially about how the church perceives things. But the presumption is that Father Flynn has revealed his mortal sin and all of his truths to another – presumably senior – priest and that behaviors coming out of that knowledge could be seen in a very specific light. This is not the point… though again, to my theory that nothing actually happened with this child, I know of cases where church-known pedophiles were moved to new parishes, but never to more high profile parishes.
The point, it seems to me, is that the only “win” in all of this is Sister Aloysius finally having doubts at the end. She has freed herself from the cell of her own personal dogma and might, as a result, have the chance to enjoy greater love of her religion and the world.
The battle between the old and the new, cited by many as reflected in this text, is there… but seems like the easy reach to me. In fact, the other reason I would say that the church even matters as a part of this story is that it offers both shock and structure to the tale… mostly structure. There are rules, there is a place where children are controlled, there is a hierarchy that must be pressed against for Sister Aloysius to keep pushing her agenda. Structure. But I think we know, knowing the history, that the church hasn’t changed that much. Few organizations have. Even viewing Milk in this light, he learns in the course of the story that he needs to learn to work the system that exists, not to try to yank it up by its roots whole.
In trying to move towards a more loving church, Father Flynn is not just breaking new ground, he is embracing the long-standing traditions of the church and more specifically, of the religion’s teachings of Christ (and, I would say, all other religions). There is no difference between the past and the future when it comes to morality.
There is one triumphant particularly line of this film. Father Flynn pleads with Sister Aloysius that there is nothing wrong with love. And in that moment, she and we are given the moment to consider this… and just how ugly the word “love” can become in the context of this situation. True, we must be vigilant. Life is not flowers and candy. But we must give words to what we feel about others so that words like “love” or “hate” or “marriage” or “money lender” or so many others cannot so easily be spun into something hateful because we fear what they might mean. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
Of course, in Doubt, we rarely see the sun. But God does seem to be sending weather to blow some sense into Sister Aloysius’ head. “Who keeps opening my window?,” she asks. God. When the wind sweeps down on her, it seems to be the proverbial finger of God.
The wind blows up terribly in one scene that I consider one of the most subtle in terms of Sister Aloysius… when she sows seeds of doubt in Mrs. Muller’s mind… a woman who already knows that her son is “different” and really, gay… who now must consider whether her church is indulging a priest using him for sexual gratification… and has no power to do anything about it. She is trapped by Sister Aloysius, even though she seems to be willing to make it all go away in a prayer for her son’s future. This, for me, is the greatest sin committed in the film.
But what do you think?