I was reading a poem by Wislawa Szymborska early this morning that reminded me, in part, of thoughts I have had after my recent viewing of the film version of John Patrick Shanley's play, Doubt. Here is the poem:
IN PRAISE OF SELF-DEPRECATION
The buzzard had nothing to fault himself with.
Scruples are alien to the black panther.
Piranhas do not doubt the rightness of their actions.
The Rattlesnake approves of himself without reservations
The self-critical jackal does not exist.
The locust, alligator, trichina, horsefly
live as they live and are glad of it.
The killer-whale's heart weighs one hundred kilos
but in other respects it is light.
There is nothing more animal-like
than a clear conscience
on the third planet of the Sun.
The film Doubt directed by John Patrick Shanley who adapted his original play for the screen is a powerful drama whose story line reminded me of one thing that makes humans different from the animals in the above poem - our ability to doubt. Shanley succeeds in creating questions, and yes - doubt, in the mind of the viewer. In spite of a slight feeling of being manipulated, he impressed me with his message. The story, set in 1964, centers on a parish and school - St. Nicholas in the Bronx. A priest, Father Flynn, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote), is trying to upend the schools' strict customs, which have long been fiercely guarded by Sister Aloysius Beauvier, played with her usual supreme acting ability by Meryl Streep, a Principal who believes in the power of fear and discipline. Political and cultural change is changing the community, and the school has just accepted its first black student, Donald Miller. The story hangs on the actions of Sister James, who I found to be the most interesting character of all, played by Amy Adams. She appears as an innocent who is buffeted by the strong wills of the Priest and the Principal, and shares with Sister Aloysius her guilt-inducing suspicion that Father Flynn is paying too much personal attention to Donald. With this bit of information Sister Aloysius sets off on a personal crusade to unearth the truth and to chase Flynn from the school. She pursues her goal without no evidence besides her moral certainty. The ensuing battle of wills between Priest and Principal results in changes in lives and the community and ultimately raise doubts for the participants and audience alike. I found the film to be a thoughtful exploration of the nature of truth, certainty and doubt - one which like all good films left me with questions to ponder in my own mind.
Sounds, Feeling, Thoughts: Seventy Poems by Wislawa Szymborska, trans. by Magnus Krynski and Robert Maguire. Princeton University Press, 1981.