`Gran Torino,’ `Doubt’ and the Catholic priesthood
I am struck by the contrasting portrayal of Catholic priests in the last two movies I’ve seen – Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” and John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” – and wondered what thoughts others might have on this.
Each film starts with the priest delivering a homily that frames the moral and spiritual issues to be exposed as the plot unfolds. In “Gran Torino,” the very young-looking Father Janovich, played by Christopher Carley, speaks at the funeral of the wife of the Eastwood character, retired auto worker Walt Kowalski. It is an uninspired re-hashing of church teachings on death and eternal life, and only succeeds in reminding Kowalski – who believes he understands death because of his experiences as a soldier in the Korean war – of how much he hates the church. In “Doubt,” adapted from the stage play and set in 1964, Father Brendan Flynn, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, preaches in praise of doubt. He seems to be preaching over the congregation’s heads, and succeeds only in planting doubts about himself – at least in the mind of the principal of the parish school, Sister Aloysius Beauvier, played by Meryl Streep. The two homilies echo in the closing scenes of the films.
Both priests yearn to induce positive change in their communities, but the similarities seem to end there. Father Janovich may be naive, but he truly believes and persists in his attempt to get the Eastwood character to confess his sins, his late wife’s dying wish. Father Flynn, even absent the sexual allegations made against him, is a more cynical sort, self-indulgent and grounded in an old boy network. Yet he seems to have a genuine desire to bring positive change to the church and society around him.
In the end, both priests stand aside as the epiphanies experienced by others – Eastwood’s Kowalski and Streep’s Sister Aloysius – bring the stories to a climax. In different ways, the messages the priests delivered in the opening homilies have struck home: Their messages are relevant – and, in two of the season’s major motion pictures, so is the priesthood.