“What do you do when you don't know?” What do you do? At the centre of this bleak film the lived-out theological answers of Aloysius/Flynn are set against one another, in a portrayal that some found more balanced than I would give it credit for. Father Flynn venturing a salvation by sympathy, Sister Aloysius salvation by structures.
The film is made gripping in its tension and tragedy by the present very public reality of Catholic child-abuse scandals which are in the invisible foreground of this film throughout. Lending another dimension to the question, “What do you do when you don't know [if Flynn did it]”, we see this answered in Sister James' uncritical optimism, and in Mrs Miller's mercenary stoicism. What do you do when you don't know?
So, of the two theologies of Flynn and Aloysius, is humanism's self-help more stable, or indeed more humanising, than the power games of the vertical hierarchies of an aloof and off-kilter Catholicism which it bids to replace? Flynn's opening sermon hopes in a horizontal Christianity, a reductive coping mechanism that bids us cling to one another in the dark of a locked closed universe. And in preaching “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty..” he opposes a very particular definition of 'certainty' via a very particular understanding of powerful. The straw-man of certainty as an unswerving allegiance to an arbitrary, subjective and judgemental absolute? And powerful: there is an irony in holding up something so potentially manipulative as a virtue.
'Certainty', the straw-man which Sister Aloysius embodies, even parodies, is made clear to be of an insubstantial nature by the exaggerated use of force she employs to defend it, making all the more frustratingly redundant her final closing concession. This force used is the fear of, as well as the imitation of, an all-powerful but unloving God, the panopticon God, punitive and unapproachable - due a comparison to The Return's God? It is a loveless God who gives no sleep “Maybe we weren't meant to sleep so well” (vs) Her's is a view of the world which again and again closes the window to the wind, in a picture which lingered with me, a potent metaphor for a zeal for order excluding chaos and chance and the reality of a real beyond the self. (vs)
I did enjoy this film's performance, the tension of the questions did hold me, and Sister James' and Mrs Miller's laissez-faire complicity did convict me. The film asks whys and hows of schooling, disadvantage and institution, as Cracks. And the film asks, at what cost child protection, it manages to ask it without appearing to have asked it. In all a demanding film.