Every once in awhile, a film comes along that is perfect. Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley, is such a film. Originally a play that won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2005, it must have been written in 2004, probably after Bush was “re-elected”, and the fear and despair that reasonable people felt about suffering through another four years of his administration was at its height.
While the film tells the story of a power struggle between a priest and a nun at a Catholic school in 1964, the real struggle is ideological. It is about hope vs. fear, compassion vs. hatred, good vs. evil. The Harry Potter books offer the same theme, but in Doubt there is enough ambiguity to keep you on your toes and really make you think. Throw in some racism and homophobia and you have a film that speaks to our times even though it takes place 45 years ago.
This film is about the current culture war. Meryl Streep’s portrayal of an embittered, cynical, old nun who only sees the worst in people reminds me of Maggie Gallagher at the National Institute of Marriage. They are the ones who recently put out that awful, fear-mongering ad about Teh Gays. But already YouTube is filled with videos countering that hateful message. To see a good selection, check out this post at The Gaytheist Agenda.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was great in Capote not so long ago, was excellent as the priest. As a child, I attended a Catholic church circa 1970 that had similar ideas to those that Hoffman’s character espouses. He reminded me so much of the priest that I knew that it was uncanny.
One other theme that really makes this film great is the idea of change vs. entrenchment. The priest wants to bring the school into the modern age. The nun is incapable of changing. She sees evil everywhere. Love and compassion are alien concepts too her. So the question remains: Are we moving toward a new era of acceptance or are we doomed to be ruled by our fear? And isn’t religion and its antiquated notions of heaven and hell part of the problem?
I gave up on Catholicism thirty years ago, but I would urge Catholics everywhere to watch this movie and really think about what it means. I suppose it is asking too much for the Pope to step into the modern age, but I can hope, can’t I?