As a fallen Catholic, I usually avoid movies about the church. Either they are by confused outsiders who demonize or glorify it, or by those who left in bitterness and have axes to grind. Doubt, instead gives us a story of characters, of beliefs, and lets them clash in a working class parish in 1964. You could say it is about Father Flynn, an eloquent young priest, is accused of molesting an altar boy on the flimsiest of evidence.

But the story is not just about whether he did it or not, but the different ways he, Sister James, and Sister Aloysius view their job as religious figures and how they view the world. The movie begins with Father Flynn, Philip Seymour Hoffman at his most charismatic, giving a sermon on how doubt can make us stronger. Sister Aloysius- Meryl Streep in yet another stunning role that makes her Devil Wears Prada character look cute and cuddly- takes umbrage at his unorthodox sermon and asks a new nun to keep an eye on him, and “see what is giving him doubts.” Sister James is played by Amy Adams (Junebug, Enchanted), a meek and compassionate teacher whose students walk all over her.
She feels uncomfortable watching Father Flynn with suspicion; she tells Sister Aloysius so, and she says that when we seek out wrongdoing, “we must step away from God.” Are we allowed to sin to root out sin? Aloysius seems to think so. She believes strongly in first impressions, and we see her find misbehaving children with an almost psychic ability. She uses fear as her tool of correction, and suggests that James put a photograph of a pope- any pope- on the blackboard so she can see what the kids are doing behind her, so they think she has eyes in the back of her head. Father Flynn is more welcoming and compassionate, wanting his students to be comfortable with him, the church, and themselves.

Everything changes when Sister James reports back to Aloysius with suspicious behavior. The one black student, Donald Miller, is upset after a visit to Father Flynn’s office. And he has alcohol on his breath. What could this mean? Aloysius has an idea, and it is not the first time she has taken down a priest for violating his trust with children. She sets her sights on Father Flynn, but Sister James is unsure that the evidence is strong enough. Is her compassionate nature making her weak, or is Aloysius’s nature making her too eager to see sin in others?
In a movie with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep battling it out with strong newcomer Amy Adams on the sidelines, it is surprising that the strongest scene is not their inevitable clash, but when Sister Aloysius confronts the boy’s mother (Viola Davis, in an Oscar nominated performance). Mrs. Miller has a surprising and heartwrenching outlook on the situation, and while Aloysius questions her love for her son, it is as fierce as her cynicism. I can’t remember how long this scene is, it feels almost like a movie in itself, though it only spans a few minutes.

The opening sermon is the overture for the film, and doubt is seeded in our own minds. The film’s ambiguity is its greatest strength. As a play, it was said it was one act, and the second act was when the audience discussed it after the curtain was down. And it still works. I sided with Father Flynn, but I’m not so sure. It’s clear he’s done something, but what?
As a former Catholic I enjoyed seeing the rituals of the church, and how different the nuns and priests lived. The nuns were almost ascetic, while the priests seemed decadent in comparison. I remember youth activities at my parish, and while we a classic fat Irish priest, all the nuns were slim. The period also gave us a peek at how differently sex and race were treated a mere 40 years ago, and I thought it was handled very well. The direction was a bit heavy handed on the Dutch angles and the reaction of lightbulbs and wind around Sister Aloysius, but this is a strong story with four excellent performances, and it is definitely one of the best movies of 2008. I’d give it Best Picture before Frost/Nixon or The Reader.

5 Dukes of Doubt out of 5