reviewed by Remy Remigio
The scene is St. Nicholas parish, the Bronx, 1964. Father Flynn, a progressive young priest, has been accused by the long-standing principal, Sister Aloysius, of foul play with the school’s first African-American student. Sister Aloysius has been suspicious of Flynn from the start. When the young and innocent Sister James confides in her about a guilt-induced suspicion that something inappropriate is happening, Sister Aloysius is determined to prove her hostile intuition correct. Without a shred of proof other than her moral certainty, she seeks to expunge Flynn from the school and conquer her doubt.
As an actor, writer and movie-goer, I was engaged from the opening credits. Simple, tactful and understated, the film begins by leading the viewer through the life of an altar boy as he wakes from sleep and begins his day before being sent off to his local parish school, setting up the feel of a Catholic community in 1964. The performances by all four actors—Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis—are truly noteworthy, particularly Davis’ brief but haunting scene as the defeated mother of the possibly abused child. Minimalism is the film’s saving foundation that gives power to the characters’ words and interactions and enables the heartbeat of the story itself to linger in the viewers’ minds long after they’ve left the theater.
Doubt is about moral uncertainty—the conflict between faith and doubt, conviction and hesitation—and the hazards of being carried away by either. Most importantly, the story shows the danger of needing to take a stand to such an extent that we lose ourself in assuming a position of defense. Though conflict is usually necessary in order to reach a place of resolution and healing, the condition of a successful resolution is for both parties to humble themselves and together discover the truth in the situation.
Unfortunately, we often seek, as does Sister Aloysius, to come out on top.” This is not her only motivation, of course, for characters (as mirrors of real people) are capable of being driven by multiple motives. Convinced of her pure intentions, Sister Aloysius becomes so hardened in her pursuit of the truth that her desire to attain command of the situation drives her to justify a lie. She becomes transformed into a poor representative of her cause, forgoing her moral contract in order to be right in her own mind. In the end, she is left with the unshakable presence of doubt—not doubt about what she is seeking to prove, but doubt about her dogmatic tactics in pressuring the truth. Her doubt concerns the very foundation of her morality.
What the film shows is that doubt is often a necessary companion to a life of faith. It is essential to the humility that enables us to believe in something bigger than ourselves. We cannot “know” for certain the complete truth of a faith-based reality; “faith” without humility is simply hubris. For the true believer, humble uncertainty does not destroy the certainty of belief but reminds us that we are incapable of knowing everything. Doubt is a gift to those who desire to live a life in which Yeshua is the ultimate authority, because we can admit the doubt, test it, lift it up to God and miraculously be transformed into creatures of faith by it.
Remy Remigio is a Jewish believer from San Diego. He has been involved in the theater as an actor and producer and hopes to enter an acting conservatory following his upcoming participation in Jews for Jesus’ Massah program. (massah.jewsforjesus.org).
Editor’s pick: For an insightful book on the relationship of doubt to faith see: Os Guinness, God in the Dark: The Assurance of Faith Beyond a Shadow of Doubt. Crossway Books, 1996.