Tuesday, January 06, 2009


Doubt is an essay of human character. It speaks of prejudices, suspicions and certainty without the burden of proof. In the eyes of the law one may be innocent until proven guilty. But for most humans convincing proof is not required; only suffficient doubt.

The overbearing, inviolably certain, strong headed and firm willed Sister Aloysius suspects father Flynn of inappropriate behavior with the only black student of the school who is also an altar boy. Her suspicions are aroused by the adorably naive sister james who expects life to be in black and white. Sister Aloysius is certain of father Flynn's activities despite her ability to prove anything and despite his insistence that he is innocent. In the end she manages to force him to leave the school as she vows that she will go as far as it takes to get him out. Sister James is always doubtful and unclear and is never sure what to conclude. In the end of the movie, we still do not know if father flynn is guilty or innocent.

In this playoff, the audience is forced to question its own prejudices. At the end of the movie, almost all of is will realize that the movie is structured to leave no clue of father flynn's innocence or guilt. Yet our biases will see us tending towards one side.

There will be those of us who believes in father flynn's statement of compassion, that he really had the boy's best interests at heart as all right-minded priests ought to have, and that his sweet nature was wrongfully exploited and abused by the towering sister aloysius. In sister aloysius hatred for frosty the snowman, or intolerant of even the tiniest of transgressions, we will find claustrophobia, and regression. In her certainty of action we will find vendetta. In her advice to sister james to hang a picture of the pope (any pope, even the older one) so that she may spy on the children as she is facing the board, we will find cunningness. They will find it endearing that the priest is willing to admit that he has made mistakes in the past and will conclude that they are not related to the accusation being made. And they will pity him for the fact that sister aloysius would've gone to any lengths to tarnish his reputation and will believe that father flynn had much integrity of character to refuse to reveal why he was taking such special interest in the black altar boy.

And then there will be those of us who will feel certain like sister aloysius. Experience, says sister aloysius, allows her to be good at judging character. We will feel the same way. A man that does not cut his nails, that is extremely lenient of misdoings among his students, who encourages students to fall in love and dance, must have the same unexacting standards of himself. In a brief conversation with his students, he tells the boys if all girls reject them, they should become a priest. We quietly wonder if as a priest, he is considering a third option- young boys. He too must be a loosely moraled disrespectful person, we will reason. In his refusal to defend himself, we will see inability of a defence. In his gift of a dancing girl to the black boy, we will find inappropriate attachments. And in all his sermons we will see a veil of self-protection.

And finally there will be those of us like sister james hoping fervently that some one would just prove something, for we cannot take the burden of inference. Sister james after all has joined the church because she loves the simplicity, the set of clear-cut rules, and the simple elegant hymps and songs. We will want to be fair, just and objective but will find it difficult not to find faults in both father flynn's behavior or sister aloysius's treatment of him. Why won't father flynn explain himself and clear his name. What can be important. Perhaps he is guilty. But perhaps he is protecting the boy. How honorable. Why wont sister aloysius let go. Why can't she be more willing to let her students have fun. Why is she so incapable of human feeling. But then we see her helping out and protecting a nun that is going blind and realize that she too is good at heart. And we will go round and round in circles never understanding what is going wrong, and eventually we will want so badly to make a decision, as ill-informed as it might be if only to be able to sleep better at night.

Doubt then is a journey of self-discovery for each member of the audience. Even as it is portraying the hierarchy of the church and the various reasons that people choose to join it- simplicity for sister james, compassion for father flynn, discipline and rigour for sister aloysius , it plays with the audience's own bias to either judge too quickly or tread too carefully. In this quest for truth, each character makes transgessions within the hierarchy of the church. Sister adams yells at sister aloysius, a senior. Father flynn talks to sister james without a third party present to witness any declaration he makes. And sister aloysius breaches hierarchy many times, by talking to the boy's mother, by disrespecting her senior father flynn. As the truth comes to the fore, god, the church and rules are swept behind. They want to know so that they can sleep at night.

Doubt is full of nuances and subtleties trying to win you over and convince you that the priest is guilty now, and innocent again and guilty again. We feel compelled to read into every dialogue, every little act so that we can understand the players, because it is only then can we convince ourselves who the villain is- proper sister aloysius who seems to have never made mistakes in her life or the loving priest who thinks life is about making mistakes, learning from them and growing above them.

In the end we will never know.
And that is the unsettling strength of doubt.
An operatic crescendo that reaches the climax and then never comes down to hit the root note.
And we are left on that crest, feeling helpless, knowing that there is no respite.

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