Life Through the Lens: ‘Doubt’ deserves ‘classic’ label

“Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.”

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There are many words to describe me now: husband, father, teacher, part-time ninja, full-time cinephile, adequately-scented…the list goes on. As a fourteen-year-old, though, only one word stood out: doubt. I was a walking container of doubt. An inadequately-scented container (or so I was told by the football team).

Is my outfit painstakingly effortless? Will my perfectly placed and sculpted bangs ring out the message of my coolness? Did that girl just smile at me?! All hands on-deck! Never mind…she was just bracing for a sneeze. Am I walking too fast? I don’t want to look desperate. Just stay quite – my “silent-mystery” is my only redeeming quality in the lunchroom. Should I laugh at that joke? Should I sit here? Did that girl just smile at me?! Never mind…she just wanted me to move. Is it possible that “can you please move?” has a deeper meaning? Move closer? Move in for a kiss? MOVE IN WITH ME? Whoa…I’m going to have to think about this for…the next three weeks… constantly…without sleeping.

Everything was tediously weighed and pondered over…and then usually scrapped out of fear. My doubt was crippling and binding. My worth and value were determined in each fleeting yet lasting moment. The doubt left me a lone spectator to life-at-a-distance.

Then I met Matt. He was scrawny, silly, and struggling with self-doubt. He was just like me! No longer was my doubt forcing me to the shadows, isolated in my solitude. Instantly, things changed. OUR doubt gave us commonality, brotherhood, and reassurance. OUR doubt emboldened us. It was no longer a defect or mistake – it was genuine connection. My friendship with Matt was liberating; the doubt remained, but it was no longer a journey traveled alone.

The movie Doubt is set in a Catholic church/school in the 1960s. It follows Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), Sister James (Amy Adams), and Sister Aloysius Bouvier (Meryl Streep). We are quickly introduced to each: Flynn is open and modern, James is sweet and innocent, and Aloysius is brutal and strict. As the story unfolds, we see each interact with children: Flynn is warm and personal, James is forgiving and trusting, while Aloysius is all about discipline and law.

A new student named Donald enters the school but struggles to fit in. Immediately, this student is a red-flag to Sister Aloysius but a source of concern for Father Flynn. As Flynn grows closer to this wounded-boy, Aloysius becomes more and more suspicious of their involvement. Is it really in the boy’s best interest or is Father Flynn taking advantage? Is he praying for the weak or preying on the weak? In the middle stands Sister James: she desperately wants to believe in purity and mercy…but experience and caution cry to BEWARE!

Is suspicion worth unrest? Is it worth sacrificing the reputation of a beloved priest and his entire congregation for an allegation without proof? Can certainty be false?

The film deals with the topic of doubt in the most beautiful and profound way. It is equally destructive to be full of certainty as it is to be full of doubt. Each comes with its own blinders. Where certainty leaves one feeling assurance to stand alone, doubt leaves one feeling comforted in the company of the searching.

These are the words delivered by Father Flynn:

“Last year, when President Kennedy was assassinated, who among us did not experience the most profound disorientation? Despair? Which way? What now? What do I say to my kids? What do I tell myself? It was a time of people sitting together, bound together by a common feeling of hopelessness. But think of that! Your BOND with your fellow being was your Despair. It was a public experience. It was awful, but we were in it together. How much worse is it then for the lone man, the lone woman, stricken by a private calamity??? ‘No one knows I’m sick.’ ‘No one knows I’ve lost my last real friend.’ ‘No one knows I’ve done something wrong.’ Imagine the isolation. Now you see the world as through a window. On one side of the glass: happy, untroubled people, and on the other side: you.?? I want to tell you a story. A cargo ship sank one night. It caught fire and went down, and only this one sailor survived. He found a lifeboat, rigged a sail and, being of a nautical discipline, turned his eyes to the Heavens and read the stars. He set a course for his home, and exhausted, fell asleep. Clouds rolled in, and, for the next twenty nights, he could no longer see the stars. He thought he was on course, but there was no way to be certain. And as the days rolled on, and the sailor wasted away, he began to have doubts. Had he set his course right? Was he still going on towards his home, or was he horribly lost…and doomed to a terrible death? No way to know. The message of the constellations – had he imagined it because of his desperate circumstance, or had he seen truth once… and now had to hold on to it without further reassurance? There are those of you in church today who know exactly the crisis of faith I describe, and 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.”

This film, directed by John Patrick Shanley, is based on his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play of the same name. With amazing power and perceptiveness, he has created a work of pure art! Every frame is mesmerizing and beautiful. Every symbol is natural yet weighty. The graceful movement – the subtle textures – it is an experience like none-other.

Not to oversell it, but this film has the greatest ensemble-performance I’ve ever witnessed. Meryl Streep is flawless – Amy Adams is understatedly brilliant – Philip Seymour Hoffman is powerfully perfect – Viola Davis (as Donald’s mother) only has two scenes but commands every second. Every line delivered by these fabulous actors lands with asteroid-sized-impact. With bated-breath you will await the verdict…is there room for doubt in the midst of certainty?

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REPORT CARD: Grade: A+

Comment: Four performances all worthy of the title “classic”

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