Doubt: A Parable is a little slow at times, but worth watching if only to see two of the best contemporary American actors, Merrill Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, pitted against each other.
Every review you read of Doubt has a completely different take: some see Fr Flynn as a Christ figure and Sister Aloysius as “the Accuser”, an old Hebrew term for Satan. Or Fr Flynn as the spirit of Vatican II and Sister Aloysius as the “repressive bad old days” of Catholicism that professional Catholics need to demonize in order to feel good about themselves. Others see Sister Aloysius as a feminist hero. Still others see Sister Aloysius as an expression of the author’s secret misogyny.
The movie of course deals primarily with the angst surrounding the fact that sexual predators among Catholic clergy were able to use their position to gain access to boys without fear of punishment. It is a theme that has been written about by people much smarter than me so I’m not going to attempt it here.
The secondary theme, and one that gave the movie its emotional depth, was about the very nature of education. “Instructing the ignorant” is, in the Catholic tradition, an act of charity listed among the Spiritual Works of Mercy. Education is an act of love.
Sister Aloysius is an authoritarian educator. Such an educator understands that children are barbarians to be civilized, and animals to be trained. The educator needs to be savvy, needs eyes on the back of her head, needs to be suspicious. She will effectively employ fear to get the results she needs.
Fr Flynn is a nurturing educator: he leads by example. He appeals to the better side of the kids under his care, inspiring them to higher things. He is not a stickler for the rules, he wants to educate the heart. He is also under suspicion of being a pedophile.
Neither vision is wrong. In their own way, each is quite correct. The young and idealistic Sister James wants to be an educator in the model of Fr Flynn. She also can’t control her class. She can’t quite bring herself to believe just how bad kids (or priests) can be sometimes. Eventually, under stress, she begins to slip into the authoritarian mode of teaching. In her pent up rage she begins to bear down hard on the good kids as well as the bad.
And then the flash of recognition. She returns to herself. She realizes what she is becoming, and she realizes how much she loves her students.