Friday, January 02, 2009


Well Barbara hasn't bothered to review the film yet, even though she gets all the new releases sent to her, so I had to look elsewhere for an opinion, and I found a wonderful review at Architect Design. He loved it.

I finally saw the film yesterday. I have to admit I found it rather tedious to sit through for the first half - the story only picks up steam as we become more involved in the crux of the matter: Is the priest a pederast or is he simply a progressive, compassionate associate-pastor whose responsibility happens to be the altar boys and the parochial school attached to the parish? To be sure, both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep play their roles beautifully.


In fact, Streep's Sr. Aloysius is so good, on first take, her apparent lack of empathy makes her entirely uninteresting, albeit the plot seeks to demonstrate the mean nun syndrome through her character. It rings true, don't get me wrong. However, watch her closely; as superior of the community, she discreetly reveals genuine charity and concern for the women under her charge - that sort of sensibility is often an indication of sanctity in the common life. On the other hand, I'm convinced Aloysius' preference for no nonsense, severe discipline as regards students was simply the way things were done in those days - not just in parochial schools either. Public schools could be just as severe - slaps and punches, slams up against lockers, or paddles in gym, not withholding. (I attended both private and public schools - so I know.) Sr. Aloysius was tough, and though it sounds sentimental - an emotion she evidently had little tolerance for - she really cared for the school children, although she knew from experience how manipulative students could be.


I think to really understand Sr. Aloysius, one should recall Sr. Vauzou from "The Song of Bernadette" - without giving away the ending - the viewer will thus understand Streep's character - not confusing her final confession with the conclusion non-religious people might assume regarding the issue of doubt.


At first the film is deceptive in its portrayal of a type of religious monotony frequently associated with conservative Catholicism - which may account for my initial boredom - although I found that the story, along with the superb acting, continued to captivate my imagination hours after viewing it. In my opinion, the film does a fair job in capturing the mood of the Catholic Church in America at the time. But since I was rather bored in the beginning, I occupied myself with picking out styling mistakes - a few of which I couldn't wait to comment on.


For instance, Hoffman's Fr. Flynn wears vestments that probably were not around at the time - too modern - but even if they had been around - the stole would never have been worn on the outside. In addition, Fr. Flynn's alb was definitely a modern alb - I doubt it was even available back then. He also uses a modern breviary - you can see he has the contemporary Liturgy of the Hours - something that did not exist at the time. Also, I doubt the tabernacle in the church would not have been veiled in the manner shown - with some odd handkerchief thing laying over the top. It would have been veiled in liturgical colors to match the priests vestments.


Then we watch Sr. Aloysius slapping kids on the back of the head at Sunday Mass. Nuns did do that - but only at school Masses - the daily Mass before classes began. Sundays the kids would have been with their family and the nuns would be up front in the first pew, sitting together as a community. That stuff never happened at Sunday Mass unless a fervent parishioner took it upon herself to correct stray children misbehaving. Another detail I found interesting is when Aloysius makes a subtle complaint about how cumbersome the habits were. Not more than a year or two later, the sisters were out of the traditional habit and into skirts and blouses. But who could fault them for that, the Seton habits were farmer-in-the-dell ugly.


As for the school culture, in one scene the girls and boys are shown dancing together during music class in the auditorium. The song was Eydie Gorme singing, "Blame it on the Bossa Nova". That would never have happened in Sr. Aloyisius' school - they may have danced the Virginia Reel - but never the Bossa Nova - the "dance of love". Although the song did offer a momentary break in the somber tone of the film - for a moment.


All in all, the film is fairly accurate as regards Catholic culture of the time, and it never impressed me as being the least bit anti-Catholic, as some people feared. Critics have suggested the ending leaves the viewer in doubt - not so much. I know what happened - most Catholics will too.


  1. Terry - What I have read is that the movie is not anti-Catholic.

    However, when it comes to the behavior of the sisters that was not the norm. We all view things through the filter of our own experiences. The sort of behavior portrayed in the movie may well be what you experienced and for that I feel very sad for you. I'm sure that it did occur in some places. Maybe more than I'll ever know.

    On the other hand, I had 12 years of Catholic school, first at Nativity and then at Derham Hall, when it was still on the campus of the College of St. Catherine.

    In the entire 12 years I never, ever saw behavior by a sister that was not "sisterly". By that I mean they were always strict but were also always kind. I never saw anyone struck by either a ruler or a hand. Now there was one that was a bit crabbier than the others (7th grade) but that's about as bad as it ever got.

    My Aunt Maxine was in the first graduating class from Derham Hall and my Mom was in the 3rd or 4th and they also loved the sisters.

    My Grandma was raised by the sisters at St. Scholastica and named my Mom after one of them (Sister Mary Adrienne). She was treated well and I was always taken to visit the dear sisters in Duluth. So we have at least 3 generations of women who loved their sisters.

    I wish everyone could have had the wonderful experiences I have had and I feel great sadness for the ones that didn't (like you)

  2. Oh Sheesh - I forgot to wish you Happy New Year. Bless you for bringing us such a wonderful blog!

  3. Terry

    I saw the flick on New Year;s Eve and thought it was an overall excellent one. I am so surprised that no unfair punches were thrown at the Church, etc.

    HA! After movie was going a bit first thing I said to my companion in the theater was "Hey those are Vatican II vestments and the stole on the outside? Naaaa. You would think a religious advisor to the flick would have rectified that. Didn't notice the brevieary...good catch.

    Also missed Aloysius'comment on the cumbersome habit ("famer-in-the-dell" ha ha ha good one). What I did NOT miss were her subtle revelations of tenderness as you mentioned. Sure she loved the kids, tough love exercised by someone who must have been rub over a few hundred times as a younger nun.

    Would love to comment and talk about Aloyisus' last lines...won't go into here in case someone is going to go catch the flick...

    HAPPY NEW YEAR 2009!!!!!!!

  4. Thanks Adrienne and David. David - I'd love to discuss the ending and more about Flynn - but it would spoil it for anyone going to see it. After reflection - the film is even better than I thought - so I agree it is excellent.

    Adrienne, you were fortunate. I have to wonder if being in an all girls school made the difference. I think the nuns were more severe with misbehaving boys, girls who wore make-up and the boys who liked them, and kids from dysfunctional families - you know, kids whose dads had been in prison, or who attended Catholic school on charity, despite the fact their parents had enough money for bar hopping and bingo.

    In my experience the teachers for the lower grades were alwys the nicest. And don't forget I grew up on the East Side - so the sisters arrived prepared for battle.

    Amazingly - we had a sister just like Aloysius, and a priest, just like Fr. Flynn in the movie - well not the sexual predator part.

    Anyway - I recommend seeing the film.

  5. Now my curiosity is up, I'll have to see the film!
    About Catholic school days, I witnessed a lot of the good, and a little of the bad; kind of like both Terry and Adrienne are saying. About the old habits, I don't think many of us realize how cumbersome they actually were, to the point of actually damaging health at times. One of my teachers suffered from severe migraines. She never indicated in any way that she was suffering to the kids, but she had told my mom. After the habits were modernized, one could see a permanent mark on her forehead, from the coif. She told Mom that she no longer had the migraines. I wonder why!

  6. Melody, that is true. One of the sisters from my school got the skirt of her habit caught in the rear city bus doors as she was exiting. She was dragged a couple of blocks before someone stopped the bus.

  7. Thanks for mentioning that, Melody. There's so much romanticism about traditional habits and things of that nature, but not usually by anyone who had to actually wear the damned things.

  8. I'm glad to hear you say that the film was not anti-Catholic. It was a concern of mine.

    I will say this - and I hate to sound like a Negative Nancy - it bothers me that the writers, director, and producers would capitalize on the stigmatizing perversity of unfit clerics. In the eyes of none Catholics, you can’t tell me that this film wont somehow perpetuate the mis-perception that priests are predatorial, and a danger to children. Why not give the same plot a chance with Protestant clergy? They, too, have had their share of child molesters.

    Again, I’m glad to hear this film is not anti-Catholic, and that it has admirable cinematic qualities. But with the way it seems to be presented, it just throws more “Doubt” on the vocational integrity of some very good priests out there. I hope I make sense and don’t come off as an over zealot or “holier-than-thou.”

  9. You make a valid point Tom. Thanks.

  10. Anonymous8:22 PM

    I went to a co-ed Catholic school for Grades 7, 8, and 9.
    I will also chime in and say I never saw un-sisterly behavior from sisters or less-than-priestly behavior from priests.
    "My" nun, Sr. Francis Assissium (+)
    was a beautiful soul. Yes, she could be stern, but she was kind and loving when all was said and done. Everyone was scared of her. I remember after my brother died, I had been out of school for a couple of weeks, and when I came back, I just assumed everyone knew. Sister asked me, "What happened?" and I nervously started babbling about the details of the accident. Her face turned ashen. "Dear, who are you talking about?" she asked.
    It was then I realized that she hadn't heard the details of my absence. I took my seat to wait for morning prayers.
    A few minutes later, Sister said, "Class, please stand for Morning Prayers, which are offered this morning for Cathy's brother, who died recently."
    It may not have seemed like much, but it meant the world to me.

    I know that abuse wasn't uncommon in schools, parochial and public, back then. "When we grew up and went to school, there were certain teachers who would hurt the children in any way they could. By pouring their derision upon anything we did, exposing every weakness however carefully hidden by the kids."

    But I just wanted to share my story.

    I hope to see this film. You've piqued my interest.


  11. june cleaver9:42 PM

    Terry, I did not look into the film for the simple reason that I was afraid it was going to be a Catholic slasher movie... but with your review I will be sure to see it.

    I attended Catholic school my entire life... elementary, high school, and college. In elementary school I loved the Good Sisters-although Sister Rose-Ellen would grab the skin under your chin and shake it when you were not paying attention... a move that I have used successfully on my own children. In high school I was taught by Priests-all of which were fair, but much harder on the boys than the girls. In college I was taught by both Nuns and Priests-and it was college so they were a little more liberal with their thinking... but overall wonderful.

    My mother always used to say to us, "Sure, I tell you to do something and you don't believe me, but when the good Sisters tell you the same thing you listen!"

    Thanks Terry~

  12. Cris and Cathy - thanks for your great comments. All I can say is, mean or nice - I owe everything to those nuns. Without them, I wouild never have remained Catholic. Those nuns were the backbone of American Catholicism.

  13. I loved the movie, too.

    In my grade school, we had some very strict nuns and thank God for them! This was back in the 70's & 80's when nuns were softening. Not our nuns! One of the sisters took a low swing at one of the 8th grade boys for not singing in choir & racked him! Another sister was fond of head-slapping for not paying attention in class. ALL of them banged on the small square glass of the classroom doors w/their rings before entering, veils flying behind. Stern but loving women, all.

  14. I will not see the film for one reason: Hollywood removed the doubt that was in the play. I'm not going to be a spoiler so I will not get specific.

  15. Anonymous3:53 PM

    Am I right in thinking that Sister Aloysius' complaint was about how easy it was to trip up in the habit? If so, she surely only voices it in order to protect Sister Veronica. She doesn't want her blindness (the true cause of her fall) exposed lest she have to leave the congregation. My impression of Sister Aloysius was that she herself would have regretted giving up the old habit, especially since she attached such value to nuns being marked out as different from others around them.


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