Doubt: A parable
Subsequently, I searched the Internet for more background information, seeing that the movies dedication hinted at a real-life story, which could have shed light on the central unanswered question: Whether Father Flynn was guilty of the implied “improper relationship” with one of the school’s boys (Donald).
I had no great luck with that question (and the very fact that the viewer never learns the truth is arguably central for the movies purpose); however, I found a very interesting, yet slightly disturbing, discussion among some real-life nuns and members of the publice:
Apparently, many of them view Sister Aloysius as the hero and Father Flynn as clearly guilty—something which I find hard to understand and which parallels the real-life problems with presumptions of guilt. Now, let us throw an eye on these two questions:
Sister Aloysius is very clearly portrayed as a reactionary/conservative, overly strict, and “no fun” nun. It can further be argued that she is too willing to let the means justify the end, acts on faith over reason, or even over-compensates for her own doubts. The main dispute should not be whether she was the good guy (she was not), but whether she was well-meaning and misguided or just the stereotypical bitter old head-mistress (a superficial impression could point to the latter, but there are plenty of signs indicating to the former). The road to Hell…
Notably, in a comparison of attitude towards life between her and Father Flynn, I am reminded of e.g. Dead Poets Societyw and Chocolatw—with Father Flynn as Robin Williams’/Juliette Binoche’s equivalent.
The movie is highly ambivalent on the guilt or innocence of Father Flynn: There are some signs that are highly incriminating—most notably, his unwillingness to answer questions and his sometimes hesitant answers. Then again, he may have been hiding something completely different: His story about the altar wine is far from implausible and what lies in his past may be something entirely different (e.g. having had an affair with a nun or being a homosexual).
On the opposite side, Sister James (who has more inside information than the viewer) believes in his innocence—and even Sister Aloysius, the accuser, confesses to having severe doubts at the end of the movie. (In this highly multi-layered work, it is possible that Sister James merely wanted to believe and that Sister Aloysius actually spoke of more general doubts; however, in the interpretation most likely to me, the former believed in Father Flynn’s innocence and the other doubted his guilt.)
Going a step further, there was no indication whatsoever that Father Flynn was (emotionally or physically) hurting Donald. On the contrary, he appeared to provide a valuable emotional support to a bullied boy with a physically (non-sexually) abusive father. It is possible that a hypothetical sexual relationship between the two would have been damaging per se; however, no such damage is indicated in the movie and the damage done by removing Father Flynn may well have lead to a negative net-effect. Certainly, Donald (per hearsay) seemed to take Father Flynn’s departure poorly.
Finally, anyone who takes a sense of certainty with him from this movie has not understood it—doubt, questioning of truth and perceptions, and awareness of different possibilities and consequences, are at its very core. Even the individual signs that seem to imply this-or-that are themselves ambiguous and sources of doubt (cf. above). In my opinion, the main benefit of watching this movie is a greater motivation to question ones own believes and the way one draws conclusions.
In a bigger picture, referring back to my earlier post, it is very important to not act out of fear (it is hardly a coincidence that the class discusses the phrase “There is nothing to fear but fear it self.” in an early scene), to give the benefit of a doubt, to use due procedure, etc. A related danger is that if someone tries to bend the facts to fit the hypothesis, this is all-too-often possible—as with the Swedish gender-glasses. Notably, Sister Aloysius produced not one single piece of evidence, but relied on interpretation of ambiguous events and statements. Further, she failed to actually ask Donald for his version… She did talk at some length to the mother, but apart from being removed from the events, her testimony only gave a few non-conclusive hints—even, possibly, indicating Donald as the pursuer. (Strong hints that he was a homosexual are given; his admiration for Father Flynn is stated outright.) Certainly, a platonic friendship between two gays in a world looking down on homosexuality is a quite plausible interpretation.
I strongly recommend those interested to visit the above discussion and its neighbouring pages: There a great number of differing views, interpretations, and speculations can be found.
As an aside on the acting: While there were a number of truly excellent performances, I advice the viewer to watch Amy Adams (Sister James) in particular—the more often praised performances by Meryl Streep (Sister Aloysius) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Father Flynn) are not superior. Some of Adams’ scenes against Streep are especially noteworthy. For those (like me) who have mostly seen her playing shallow pretty-girls, her performance was an eye-opener. Viola Davis (the mother) also received considerable, justified praise for her performance; however, her effort is limited to a single scene.