Do unto others.
†For more information, contact:
†† Gary Schouborg, PhD
†† (925) 932-1982
Schouborg, Gary (2009).
"Boundaries: Review of the movie, Doubt.
Explores the dialectic between intimacy and personal boundaries."
Boundaries: Review of the movie, Doubt
Explores the dialectic between intimacy and personal boundaries.
Had my wife Nini not attached the leash to the ring through my nose and dragged me to see it, I would never have chosen to go to the movie Doubt. The reason was that I feared† it was the same old tired discussion of priest pedophiles. Some reviewers have seen Doubt as a whodunit polemic against moral intolerance. Though that may be the creators' intent, the film itself is richer and subtler than that. Itís a brilliant exploration of the role of doubt and conviction in the dialectic between intimacy and personal boundaries.
If you haven't seen the movie and don't want to know about two major surprises in the plot, read no further. I can't make my point without revealing them.
Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the progressive priest for whom kindness takes priority over belief and rules. Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep in a quirky tour de force) is the conservative nun for whom conviction and rules govern. Sister James (Amy Adams) is the innocent every-person who isn't sure which of the two philosophies to follow, condemning neither and open to what each may have to offer. Donald Miller (Joseph Foster) is the first and lone black student in a Catholic high school of Irish and Italian children. Miller's mother (Viola Davis in a stunningly artless performance) defends him against his father, who physically abuses him for being gay, the students, who could lash out against him at any moment, and Sister Aloysius, who would sacrifice him on the altar of her moral and prosecutorial convictions.
Father Flynn's warm kindness and Sister Aloysius's cold intolerance are their most obvious traits. Yet there is also a troubling softness to Father Flynn, one that raises doubt whether he is wholly kind or also indulging a need for approval that blinds him to what is truly good for the youngsters in his care. In contrast, Sister Aloysius is truly kind to those whose need is obvious: the older, failing sisters in her community. She is also shrewd and practical, aware that the students' welfare often requires tough love, though she maniacally over-does the toughness.
The interaction among these five personalities drives not only a compelling whodunit and polemic against intolerance, but at a deeper level, an interplay between intimacy and personal boundaries. Five scenes are particularly revealing.
The first is Sister Aloysiusís care to follow the rule that she and any priest not be in her office alone. The rule unnecessarily distances her from Father Flynn. But it also prevents both parties from being open to unfounded suspicions. After all, had Father Flynn and Donald always had a witness to their meetings, there would be no suspicion, even from Sister Aloysius, that their encounters were sexual.
In the second scene, Sister James uncharacteristically asserts herself toward a student who disrespects her in class. A sensitive, timid, inexperienced, and unassertive young nun, she wins our approval in finally standing up for herself. Yet almost immediately, she apologizes to the student when she sees how mortified he is by her unexpected forcefulness. This is a highly ambiguous, subtle scene that can be read several ways. Those focusing on intolerance can see her as recognizing her error in judging the student to have done something wrong. Those focused on personal development can see her as rightly sticking up for herself but unable at this early stage to maintain her posture, quickly backing down lest she make anyone an enemy. But within the framework that I'm drawing here between personal boundaries and emotional intimacy, there is revealed the difficulty of asserting oneself while maintaining intimacy. New to the skill, Sister James distances herself from the student while rightly insisting that she be respected. Recognizing the resulting rift between them and valuing intimacy more than anything else, she apologizes to the student in order to repair the breach. The film could have let us know that a more integrated Sister James could have asserted herself while maintaining intimacy. Whether deliberately or not, whether unfortunately or not, the film does not present us with that possibility.
In the third scene, Sister Aloysius reveals to Donaldís mother that she herself was married before becoming a nun. We are stunned to find this out. What are we to make of it? Was she happily married and embittered by losing her husband in the war? Or was she a frigid woman who was freed by her husband's death to become a nun free to follow her moral convictions and traditional preferences? Or what other clues to her character might this revelation give us?
The fourth scene is the most morally sensitive one, where Donaldís mother reveals to Sister Aloysius that her son is gay and being physically abused by his father for it. Rather than disgusted by the possibility that Father Flynn has seduced Donald, she is grateful for the priest's love for the boy in a world where the boy is loved by no one else. She therefore confronts Sister Aloysius, explaining how exposure of the alleged relationship between Father Flynn and Donald would only hurt the boy, and challenging Sister Aloysius whether she's on the boy's side or that of her heavy-handed moral understanding of love.
In the final scene, Sister Aloysius confesses to Sister James her own doubts. About what, she doesn't say. About Father Flynn? About her faith? About her many convictions of how life ought to be lived, including an almost moral fervor in her preference for fountain pens over ball-points? About how her grasping for conviction has robbed her of emotional intimacy with others? Characteristically, and with great integrity, the film does not say.
In none of these scenes does the film, ruthlessly faithful to its title, indulge the audience with a clear answer. But the doubt in question is not primarily the immediately obvious one of whether Father Flynn really did seduce the boy. In all these scenes, we are left with conflict between behavior that distances us from others and behavior that draws us to emotional intimacy. Which does which under what conditions, we are left to ponder. The genius of the film is that it leaves us ultimately exposed to ourselves, challenged with our own inner discernment between practicality that is an emotional Pyrrhic victory and practicality that is constructive; and between intimacy that is merely feckless sentimentality and intimacy that is true communion between two flesh and blood mortals.