Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan



First, I have to state that the Catholic Church is a culture as alien to me as Hindus, holy rollers, ultra-orthodox Judaism, Islam, or creatures from the planet Tralfamadore. They lost me long before the totally idiotic doctrine of Papal infallibility. So I’m admitting—no, declaring—a Reformationist, lapsed-Lutheran prejudice before I even get started. I’ll try to keep it under control.

The plot is simple. It’s 1964, and a new priest is suspected of an inappropriate relationship with a young boy, the only black boy in the Catholic school. The strict Mother Superior of the nuns is determined that he must leave. He leaves. The end. Ah, but did he do it? Is this a story of a bad man being caught, or an innocent man hounded by unproven allegations? Well … if the movie succeeds, you should be left in doubt. If you are sure of your verdict, either way … you and Sister Aloysius should get along fine. If you are leaning one way or another … which way you lean may depend on which way you were leaning before you sat down in the theater.

When we left, Lee and I were leaning in opposite directions. Lee thought he was probably guilty, and I thought he was probably innocent. Later …

Sister A is the epitome of the Mother Superior who has haunted the nightmares of Catholic school kids for generations. She is the Perfect Nazi of Faith and Certainty. In an earlier generation she would have made an excellent concentration camp guard. Even earlier she would have thrived as a questioner for the Inquisition. She is Old School with a vengeance, and that is the perfect word. You do not want to cross her. She will have your balls for breakfast, one way or another. If she must lie, she will do it. (In Islam there is even a term for it—which I can’t recall—so that it’s okay to drink wine or eat pork—to sin—if it will confound and lull the Infidel.) Father Flynn is a Vatican II liberal. She despises him from his very first sermon, which is on doubt. She tells her sisters to be on the lookout for suspicious behavior, like using ball-point pens. The innocent Sister James, played by Amy Adams, sees something that disturbs her. Previously, Sister A has witnessed a scene, maybe ten seconds in all, that … I was going to say raises questions in her mind, but I don’t think she ever had any questions. It either confirms her initial suspicions that Flynn is a pedophile, or provides her with the thin end of the wedge to oust him. Either way, she is absolutely convinced, on no evidence whatsoever, that Flynn is molesting the boy in question. It is entirely her feelings, her faith if you will, and her conviction is unshakable.

Why did I tend toward the idea that he was innocent? I guess because I liked him and hated her. Why did Lee tend to suspect him? Because many of the priestly pedophiles finally outed in the last decades were amiable fellows that everybody liked, just like Father Flynn. She has a good point. Flynn has a reasonable explanation for everything. Lee said, Yeah? Then why did he cave in and leave when he discovered that Sister A had talked to a nun at his last parish, instead of to the priest, as church law demanded? Good point. Maybe he did have something to hide. (It could have been that he was diddling nuns, not boys.) But Sister A was lying, she never talked to a nun.

There’s much more but, upon reflection, I have to say that I’m not now leaning either way, and it’s not really the point, anyway. The writer/director, John Patrick Shanley, intentionally creates a situation where no fair person could know. So my guiltmeter is pointing straight up. Which is probably where it should have been all along. The ending might seem to bear out Lee’s feeling: Flynn is transferred to another parish, as the pastor. “A promotion,” Sister James points out. Sister A and Father Flynn told their stories to the Monsignor, and he believed Flynn. Which, we now know, is exactly what would have happened to a guilty priest in 1964, even one the higher ups knew was guilty. But wait … it’s also what would have happened to an innocent priest.

Here’s what I’m sure of: What evidence there was, was so flimsy as to be non-existent. Flynn was never given a chance to defend himself, never given his day in court. That he may not have wanted a day in court is beside the point. This is not justice, as I see justice. But then, it’s the Church, and they operate under their own laws of Faith … and screw them. I’m so happy that the internal struggles of the Catholic Church—the moral struggles of all churches, such as the Episcopal debate about gay bishops—is not my problem! Unless, as in the recent Mormon and Catholic support for Proposition 8, and on abortion rights, they try to intrude their fucked-up attitudes on my country, in which case, damn them to bloody hell!

And that’s the atheist, lapsed-Lutheran perspective.

2008 OSCAR WATCH: There are no less than four acting nominations to consider here.
1) Philip Seymour Hoffman for Best Supporting Actor. … what? Are you friggin’ kidding me? This is unconscionable, and a result of the 1988 Geena Davis win for The Accidental Tourist, which was controversial at the time as she was really a co-star with Kathleen Turner and William Hurt. But ever since the studios have touted parts that are way too large for the supporting categories, with some success, on the theory that such a large part with a Big Name will have a much better chance of winning there against the often obscure non-stars we typically find in that column, than trying to go head to head with the Big Names like Sean and Brad and Meryl and Cate. (This really sucks, IMHO. The Academy should tighten up its rules.) The supporting nominations should be for brief roles that make an indelible impression, such as Michael Wincott in {The Assassination of Richard Nixon}} (2004, not nominated) or Michael Shannon and Viola Davis this year. You look at the people who Hoffman’s up against and, aside from the maudlin votes for Heath Ledger, his performance towers over the others, simply because he’s on screen more than all the others combined. And his performance is great, no question, but he should have had to try to tower over Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke. For this reason—and I’ve now seen all the nominated Supporting Actors—and because it was a great performance, I’m sticking with Michael Shannon as my pick. Anyway, Hoffman already has his Oscar.

2) Meryl Streep for Best Actress. What can you say? Has she ever been bad, in anything? Even in bad movies, she shines. … and she’s been nominated 15 times, and won twice. I know we’re supposed to forget all that and simply judge this performance—and it’s a frighteningly good one, once again—but when I see her name on the ballot these days I feel like I do when I hear Connie Willis has won another Hugo and/or Nebula: Damn, you’re good, girl, but isn’t it time somebody else won? So even though I haven’t seen her nominated performance in The Reader yet, I’m rooting for Kate Winslet. She’s been nominated 6 times, and could have had two slots on this year’s ballot, with Revolutionary Road. But I wouldn’t bet against Meryl. And if she wins, I won’t be able to say she doesn’t deserve it. She’s so good it’s scary.

And 4) Amy Adams and Viola Davis. Amy is sweet and quite good, but unless Taraji P. Henson completely blows me away in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, this award really should go to Viola Davis. She’s not a big star, she’s mostly done TV so far in her career. In Doubt she plays only one scene, about 10 minutes long, all of it with Meryl Streep, and she not only holds her own, she owns the scene. She’s my pick, but I doubt that will stop the Academy from giving it to Marisa or Penelope.