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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