The Bells of St. Mary’s ring no more.  Half a century has passed since Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman demonstrated to audiences the redemptive nature of the Christian Church in the 1945 film.  John Patrick Shanley’s alternative perspective with the adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt, questions The Church by questioning its servants.  In an age where sex scandals have rocked reputations in the rectory,[1] casting doubt instead of dispersions is certainly understood.  Yet, the movie invites discussion of even deeper questions: Is certainty a myth?  Is authority abusive?   Should justice be blind?  Does perception trump reality?  Answers to these questions may be as elusive as the film’s conclusion in the actions of individuals or governments.

Meryl Streep, arguably the best actress to ever walk any stage, plays the overpowering, overbearing Sister Aloysius Beauvier.  The nun strikes fear and (physical) pain into the young charges at her school as well as during Sunday morning mass.  Whether obsessed with the wrongful use of ballpoint pens or silence during meals until she alone rings the bell for interruption, Streep artfully directs the audience in their collective loathing of her character.  Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Father Brendan Flynn, a genial priest who captures the spirit of the progressive movement coming out of The Vatican in the early 1960’s.  The priest’s kindness juxtaposed with the sister’s austerity causes the barometric pressure to drop as warm and cold fronts collide.

A novice teacher in the parochial school (Amy Adams) seeds the brewing storm with her sincere yet superficial behavioral observation.  It seems Father Flynn befriends a young altar boy.  Impropriety is suggested.  The young nun brings her information to Sister Beauvier whose suspicions are raised more by rancor than reality.  Confrontation between the combatants leave more questions unanswered.  Add to this lack of assurance the absoluteness of the young man’s mother (played by Viola Davis, who supersedes all other performances in this picture).  When the nun reveals her notion of sexual misconduct by the priest, a Catholic mother’s categorical obeisance to her faith, her race, and her son’s future is perhaps the most shocking revelation in Doubt.

After Mother Teresa’s death, Newsweek dedicated a cover article to depict her doubts from, then, newly disclosed personal correspondence.[2] Little noticed during her lifetime in the secular world, focus shifted to questions about her faith after death.  Perhaps it was this revelation that set up the last scene in the movie exposing the doubts encountered even by those most committed.  Surety is difficult in a generation nurtured by cynicism parlayed by the John Stewarts of the world.  If ever there was a need for evenhandedness in media, it is now.  However, Doubt should make the viewer re-examine their own personal beliefs based on insufficient evidence, perception, or group-think.  And all should hold the tension of their questions while they ring the bell for Truth.

Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material concerning children.

Dr. Mark Eckel is Dean of Undergraduate Studies, Crossroads Bible College


[2] August 2007;

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