Watching Doubt

One dan­ger of watch­ing a peri­od film set in a time, and deal­ing with a sub­ject mat­ter, with which I am intense­ly inter­est­ed (and more than mod­er­ate­ly famil­iar) is the extra vig­i­lance with which I scru­ti­nize the screen for the slight­est tech­ni­cal error or incon­sis­ten­cy. Such an obses­sive activ­i­ty can prove fatal­ly dis­tract­ing: only if the film itself is excep­tion­al­ly arrest­ing can it hope to car­ry me along while I scour the edges of the frame for any missed detail.

It was just over an hour into Doubt (2008) before I caught one. The movie is set in 1964, and the snip­pets of Mass seem care­ful­ly accu­rate, both in tone and in form. Peri­od dress, and espe­cial­ly cler­i­cal man­ners, are spot-on. Yet when Philip Sey­mour Hoffman’s char­ac­ter opens his bre­viary in the gar­den, it is clear­ly the cur­rent edi­tion in Eng­lish, the same edi­tion I have sit­ting next to me, an edi­tion which was first print­ed in — wait for it — 1975. Ahh! Is it sad that notic­ing that makes me feel more alive than any­thing has in weeks?

That film­mak­ing home­work error notwith­stand­ing, Doubt is an impres­sive film. I have nev­er seen (or read) the play by John Patrick Shan­ley from which this movie grew, but the dia­logue through­out dis­plays its small-cast stage roots, though cer­tain­ly not in a bad way. It is a pow­er­ful sto­ry, brave­ly and ele­gant­ly grap­pling with the vast dark­ness of cler­i­cal sex abuse in the life of the Church in our day, a dark­ness we will not soon or eas­i­ly come out from under. And the sto­ry of this film is to my mind the most brave for how it does not make any hubris­tic attempt to resolve this cen­tral trau­ma, but mere­ly to treat it, and to treat it very care­ful­ly and well.

I don’t have it in me at the moment to delve into that mat­ter itself. But this film is a spec­tac­u­lar med­i­ta­tion on what the human expe­ri­ence would be in such a sit­u­a­tion. For those inter­est­ed in the his­to­ry of this scan­dal, par­tic­u­lar­ly in this era, I reit­er­ate my rec­om­men­da­tion of David France’s mon­u­men­tal book Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scan­dal (Broad­way Books, 2004). Not a pleas­ant read, but I think a bal­anced one; a hard-hit­ting nar­ra­tive of an unfin­ished tragedy that is still unfold­ing across the Catholic world. Like the still-dai­ly head­lines, France’s book and Shanley’s play and movie are not pred­i­cat­ed to help faith­ful, con­cerned Catholics sleep well at night. But, as Sis­ter Aloy­sius says at the end of this film, “Maybe we’re not sup­posed to sleep so well.”

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