Monday, August 11, 2014

Doubt, ambiguity, and judgment

I saw it around the time it came out, but I recently rewatched the movie Doubt (2008), starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis. I really did enjoy it. One aspect of the film I appreciated -- something I find I like about a lot of different films and series, actually -- is the relentless ambiguity of it all.


The story is a relatively simple one. The head nun at a Catholic school, Sister Aloysius (played by Meryl Streep), comes to believe that the priest, Father Flynn (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), has been engaging in an inappropriate relationship with the school's lone black boy, who also worked as an altar boy for some time. One of the nuns, Sister James (played by Amy Adams), brings some information to the attention of Sister Aloysius that sets her on a campaign to out Fr. Flynn. Convincing him that she has contacted a nun at a previous parish of his (she hasn't), he is willing to resign and move on to somewhere else. When she confesses to Sister James that she never contacted any nun, Sister James is surprised. Sister Aloysius takes Fr. Flynn's resignation as equivalent to a confession of guilt. The film ends with her confessing to Sister James outside the church in the cold and snow with tears and overwhelming emotion: "I have doubts. I have such doubts."

The story seems straightforward but throughout the film it becomes obvious that not very much is obvious at all. Very few things are said out in the open: there is mostly reference to "it", "that", "I don't believe it," "You know what I'm talking about," "There are things I can't say to anyone," etc. Few times is anything referred to by name. This ubiquitous ambiguity calls the characters of the film as well as its viewers to attention and careful judgment.

Part of why I like the film so much is that it offers us an exercise in moral judgment. Sister James is a representation of a kind of benevolent judgment which thinks the best of everyone and is willing to assume the most favorable and charitable interpretation of another's actions. Sister Aloysius suspects Fr. Flynn from the very beginning and has obviously been made quite cynical; she is hardened by the "experience" to which she refers at one point in the film when justifying her suspicions to Sister James. The uncertainty of everything in the film invites us to make judgments, but how will we make those judgments? Are we going to assume the best in charity, or the worst in cynicism and doubt?

It is by no means clear that Fr. Flynn's relationship to the altar boy was inappropriate. In the first place, the boy does not seem to react in anything like the way I have read victims of sexual abuse react. I admit to a limited perspective on this matter, but my readings of the testimonies of victims of pedophilia suggest that children typically know that something is wrong when they are molested. They are well aware that what is going on isn't right, and they respond with the kind of fright and revulsion appropriate to that perception. The boy in the film, however, does not react in anything like that matter.

Furthermore, Sister Aloysius's lie about contacting a nun from a previous parish likewise proves nothing. Fr. Flynn was clearly concerned about some persons from past places of service, but this hardly entails that he was a child molester and that he had engaged in a sexually illicit relationship. Fr. Flynn confesses nothing explicitly in his encounter with Sister Aloysius; we have only to make ignorant guesses about what might have overwhelmed him at that point.

It is hinted at one point that the boy with whom Fr. Flynn is so friendly is a homosexual. It may have been that Fr. Flynn himself was a homosexual, and recognizing this in the boy, and knowing the torture and travails awaiting him in light of that fact, he intended to be a positive and friendly presence for him -- though not a sexual one by any means. We also learn that the boy's father abuses him because of his effeminacy. Fr. Flynn may have intended to be a kind presence for the boy without wishing to corrupt him by any means. It may be that word got out at Fr. Flynn's previous parish that he was a homosexual and did not want to be outed at his present church, either. That and not much more may have been the motive for his leaving.

But none of this is clear and obvious from the film. That is the film's charm, and that is its challenge as well: how do we judge others in the ambiguities and uncertainties of life? Shall we assume the best, or assume the worst? Is there a benevolent wind pushing everything from behind into a glorious future, as Fr. Flynn mentions in his final sermon, or may God not be watching over us at all, leaving us to do the work of maintaining the moral order in the universe -- our doubts and the impossibility of certainty notwithstanding?

One aspect not discussed often enough is the question of divine providence and its relation to the weather. In the movie the weather is terrible around the time of the events: it is windy, rainy, snowy, horrible. What interpretation can we give it? Is this is a divine wind pushing Fr. Flynn out of the parish -- for his good? for the good of children at risk? Do the incessant rains and lightning and thunder, not to mention the sleepless nights of both Sisters James and Aloysius, speak of God's displeasure with their pursuits? Are they crucifying an innocent man unnecessarily? When Sister James approaches Sister Aloysius to tell her about some suspicious events surrounding the boy believed to have been molested, they are twice interrupted by third parties and forced to relocate.Was the stream of interruptions a sign that these things are best not said?

It certainly isn't clear. I would imagine that our tendencies in moral judgment will influence our perception of (what might be) divine providence. If we are inclined to assume the best, then perhaps these small things here and there might be signs intended to dissuade us from moving away from God and into moral condemnation in the pursuit of the guilty. Indeed, Sister James tells Sister Aloysius before she confesses the precise causes for her suspicion: It is unsettling to look at people with suspicion. I feel less close to God. Perhaps that feeling of distance from God was a sign that she was not going down the right path in bringing these suspicions to Sister Aloysius. Perhaps Sister Aloysius's doubts were evidence that she, too, had taken a wrong turn at some point and was far off from where God wanted her to be. She had lost the sense of God and the ability properly to understand what was going on around her.