Monday, August 29, 2011


As a diversion in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, we watched the movie "Doubt" set in the Bronx in the 1960s. It's about a Sister of Charity (Meryl Streep) who squares off against a Catholic priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) over the nun's suspicions of an improper relationship between the priest and a young boy who attends St. Nicholas School where the nun presides as Principal with an iron fist. The movie was wonderfully written and acted, but more to the point of this blog, it released a flood of memories for me about life inside the walls of a Catholic grammar school. Life was much less complicated then; we never knew what lay ahead like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy assassination, the exploration of space, and race riots in our streets. My biggest daily worry was not getting smacked around by the screws (Franciscan brothers, Sisters of St. Joseph, and lay teachers) who ruthlessly patrolled the halls of Our Lady of Lourdes School.

Watching "Doubt" was as if someone flipped a switch in my head and I was back in those classrooms. Don't get me wrong...I loved school in spite of the daily threat of bodily harm, but it was an ongoing battle between a boy's temptation to do what you were told not to do (like talking in class) and the consequences of getting caught, as Brother Jude advanced down that classroom aisle with murder in his eyes, always careful to remove his watch lest he damage it on your skull. There were never any hard feelings involved in administering discipline; it was just business. Brother Jude would eagerly join in a game of Triangle (schoolyard baseball) at lunch time and act as if he had never boxed your ears an hour before. The screenwriter for the movie had to experience that world to write a script that so exactly captured the mood of that place and time.

I always say I'm not a big Meryl Streep fan, yet she's been brilliant in every movie I've ever seen her in; Doubt was no exception. She plays Sister Aloysius, a hard-case nun who treats change like the plague. She bemoans the decline in penmanship, and attributes it in part to the introduction of ball point pens. "You have to press down so hard, it makes you write like a monkey" she pronounces. "I'm so sorry I ever even allowed them to use cartridge fountain pens."  The scenes at Sunday Mass were also spot on, as a vigilant nun patrols the aisles of the church administering a sharp smack to the back of the head of any foolish child who dares to talk or fall asleep. Sister Aloysius metes out justice from her school office with malice for all and mercy for none. To a boy caught listening to a transistor radio in class: "Write out the multiplication tables ten times each, and make sure they're legible." No transgression will ever pass Sister Aloysius unpunished.

Father Flynn, played beautifully by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a victim of Sister Aloysius when her accusing mind and relentless persecution cause him to transfer out of the parish. He so reminded me of some of the more approachable priests from my old church like Father Schaeffer, who looked like JFK and made a real effort to reach out to the young boys of the parish. I saw him once take on a group of punks from outside the neighborhood who tried to crash a school dance. We followed him outside to help, but he needed none as he soon had the tough guys licking their wounds and on the run. It dawned on me that his interest in us, when viewed through the eyes of a Sister Aloysius, might have well ended his career as a priest. I know the Catholic Church had its problems with abusive priests, but the movie left me conflicted about the line between genuine priestly affection and child abuse.

At some point in the film, Father Flynn gives a sermon about gossip. A woman confides to her confessor that she is guilty of gossiping. For her penance he tells her to cut a pillow, go to the roof of her house, and empty all the feathers into the air, then come back to him. She does as she is told, and the priest says to her: "Now go and retrieve all those feathers and put them back into the pillow." That's impossible she says, they are in the air and cannot be retrieved. "And that is gossip" says Father Flynn.  Even the pious and always certain Sister Aloysius tearfully admits to doubts at the end of the movie. A good lesson for us all. Matthew 7:1 Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged.


Children's Craniofacial Association 


Joseph Del Broccolo said...

I think the movie was or should be considered art, because of the camera work the moods, the art direction and the excellent acting, not to mention the story.

Jim Pantaleno said...

I agree. Laura talked me into watching it and I'm glad she did.

The Whiner said...

I knew you'd like those scenes of the grammar school and church! Great film!