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Doubt:  A Film Discussion Guide

(USA, 2008)

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep put in great performances in the new film Doubt, based on a play of the same title written by John Patrick Shanley. Shanley wrote the screenplay for and directed the film. Here are some discussion questions for the film. (These are based on an assignment I’ve developed for my course Faith, Film and Philosophy.)

  1. Why is Doubt a suitable title for this film? There may be several reasons.
  2. This film is an adaptation of John Patrick Shanley’s play Doubt. Have you read the play? Have you seen the play performed? If you’ve read or seen the play, what is your evaluation of the film as an adaptation?
  3. What is the opening scene of the film? Having seen the whole film, what makes this a fitting start?
  4. Where does Father Flynn get his ideas for his sermons? What is the theme of his first sermon? His second sermon? His farewell sermon? What is the source of each of these sermons?
  5. Sister James asks Father Flynn if the sermon about gossip was directed at anyone in particular? He replies with a question, “What do you think?” Neither question is answered directly. So, what do you think?
  6. doubt-hoffmanWhat do you think of Father Flynn’s description of gossip and his method of illustrating this vice? Is it effective? Does it give you greater insight into the nature of this common but malicious practice? Have you ever been the victim of gossip? Did it have an unfair effect on your reputation? How did you respond? Did you do something about it? What should a person do when someone with influence has spread rumors about him or her to others?
  7. What does Sister Aloysius think Father Flynn has done wrong? Does she have a specific allegation of wrongdoing? What is it? If Sister Aloysius candidly agrees that she has no evidence and cannot prove her allegations against Father Flynn, why is she so certain that he has done something wrong? Is it true that she has no evidence? Are there moments when you suspect that Sister Aloysius is right to suspect Father Flynn? If so, when, during the film, do you feel this way?
  8. Sister Aloysius walks with Mrs. Miller in the cold weather toward the place where Mrs. Miller works as a cleaning lady. What do we learn about Mrs. Miller’s son, James, from their conversation? What effect does this have on the Sister’s suspicions about Father Flynn?
  9. Immediately following the conversation between Sister Aloysius and Mrs. Miller, there’s a gust of wind that vehemently lifts and swirls the fall leaves around the Sister. There is something unnatural about this. Perhaps it is symbolic. Can you relate this occurrence to any other features of the film that explain it significance?
  10. While coaching the boys in basketball, Father Flynn notices that some of the boys have dirty fingernails. He stresses the importance of having clean nails and shows them his own, saying, “I like mine a little long.” What’s significant about this moment in the film? Recall that Sister Aloysius later orders Father Flynn to cut his nails. What does this business about Father Flynn’s nails have to do with the themes of the film?
  11. Father Flynn thinks things should be a little more relaxed and friendly at the school. You might suspect that his theological views are also more lax and progressive. Is this accurate? Are there indications that Father Flynn’s theological beliefs are traditional or more progressive (i.e., liberal)?
  12. Ultimately, Father Flynn leaves the parish to become pastor of another congregation. Why does he leave? Does his departure mean that he is guilty of wrongdoing? Sister Aloysius remarks that his resignation is proof of his guilt. Do you think she might be right? Suppose Father Flynn has done nothing wrong in his relationship with the boy named James. And suppose he’s done nothing wrong with other boys at other parishes.
  13. How does Sister Aloysius justify her lie about speaking with a nun about Father Flynn’s behavior at his previous parish? Could a lie of this sort ever be justified for a person in her position? Why hasn’t Sister Aloysius made the phone call she claims she has made?
  14. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “innuendo” as “an oblique hint, indirect suggestion; an allusive remark concerning a person or thing, especially one of a depreciatory kind.” Consider the role of innuendo in this film. The accusations of Sister Aloysius are indirect and yet pointed and insistent. Father Flynn’s response is often diffident and cautious. Sister James is coy. Why are the themes of the film handled in this way, rather than more directly?
  15. How does the film end? Are you surprised by the confession made by Sister Aloysius? Is this a satisfying ending? Is there any sense in which Sister Aloysius, stern as she is, is a sympathetic character? Explain.
  16. What does this film say about doubt? What else is this film about? What lessons does this film have for the viewer?
  17. Are there people you know who would enjoy seeing this film? Why do you think they would enjoy it? Are there people you know who would not enjoy seeing this film? Why do you think they would not enjoy it?
  18. doubt-streepList other films you’ve seen starring Meryl Streep in a lead role. Compare Streep’s performance in Doubt with her performance in these other films. On a scale of 1 to 100, how would you rate her performance in Doubt in comparison with her performance in other films? Alternatively, rank her performance in this and other films by placing them in order, starting with the best and working down the scale.
  19. Do the same for Philip Seymour Hoffman that you did for Streep in the previous question.
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