It appears I need to diversify my Google Reader, subscribe to different journals, or make some new friends, as no one in my circle of electronic, print, or human communication alerted me to the cinematic horsepower of Doubt.
Granted the fault is largely my own, for I didn’t seek out any reviews. Seeing that anti-Catholicism holds its place as America’s last acceptable prejudice, I assumed that the film would be a well orchestrated demolition, where the Catholic Church played the role that the suburbs did in American Beauty: a caricature of a cartoon of a straw man wherein nothing good can be found. I could not have been more wrong.
Granted, Doubt is a well-orchestrated demolition, but what it demolishes is that venerable theological tradition, with a long life in American Protestant and Catholic circles, of liberal Christianity. The film deftly exposes what can actually lurk behind some of the impassioned cries within the church for tolerance and inclusion. The result is that a warm, welcoming, creed-crunching post-conciliar priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) emerges as the villain, and a conservative, rule-abiding, orthodox nun (Meryl Streep) as the hero. In case we might miss that point, one scene juxtaposes the orderly, restrained meals in the convent with the rowdy, gluttonous feasting of Monseigneur Merlot and company. Another scene has the traditional nun open the blinds to let the in the sunlight, to the great annoyance of the liberalizing priest who—despite the dried flowers gently pressed into his breviary—prefers the darkness.
[Spoiler alert] Wisely, the film is laced with just enough ambiguity to enable differing interpretations (how else would it have slipped past studio censors?). For example, what is one to make of the final scene where said nun breaks down in an agony of “doubt” herself? Surely many viewers interpreted this moment the way Christopher Hitchens interpreted the “doubts” of another famous nun. But this facile conclusion is as problematic in Doubt as it was with Mother Teresa.
Make no mistake, our nun’s final breakdown is quite far from the “I’m not sure my religion is true” perplexity that evidently afflicts the film’s liberalizing priest. In the nun’s case, her agony was much thicker, much more real. It even happens in a garden, which may sound familiar: Corruption of the religious hierarchy (who promotes an abusive priest) causes a dedicated reformer intense spiritual suffering, to the point where she desperately asks the assistance of her disciple as she agonizes in a garden? Call it surrendering to doubt, but it sure sounds like the imitatio Christi to me.