Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Doubting the Saints

By Jessica Hudepohl

The media, film in particular, is a source of moral orientation, though not of spiritual guidance (Hjavard 2008:21). According to Margaret Miles, contemporary popular films have become a transmitter of the values and attitudes held by modern society. However, religion is not only communicated through the mass media; religious beliefs are also imbedded into the very core of popular culture (Miles in Axelson 2006:3). Both The Boondock Saints and Doubt reflect Roman Catholic beliefs and rituals, with Christian ethics and morality playing an essential role in each film’s plot.

The research of Tomas Axelson into Swedish film viewing and its influence over its audience reinforces the notion of religious belief embedded in film. He surveyed the viewing choices within a mixed group of atheists, agnostics and religious young adults, and questioned them as to why they chose specific films as their favourites. In particular, Axelson focused on their concept of ‘life-questions’ and how they were reflected in each film. Two of the most commonly reflected concepts were those regarding moral principles and good versus evil (Axelson 2006:5-8). The application of these concepts to both The Boondock Saints and Doubt will allow us to investigate the representations of religious values and beliefs in these films.

Aspects of Morality/The question of Morality

Both films work on the principle of Christian morality and are preoccupied with interpretations of sin. Based on the law of God, the protagonists in both The Boondock Saints and Doubt take matters into their own hands and decide what is wrong using their interpretations of Christian ethics. However, by definition, their own actions are immoral too; Sister Aloysius explains this concept: “When you take a step to address wrongdoing, you take a step away from God, but in his service.”In both films, the characters act for the perceived good, regardless of how those actions affect others.

In The Boondock Saints, the MacManus brothers take the fight against organized crime into their own hands, beginning with a simple act of defense, but eventually culminating into a vendetta against anyone they think to be morally corrupt. Their victims are not chosen based on any particular system or form of order; these ‘angels of death’ simply visit those guilty of extreme sin. Their friend Rocco, a low-level delivery boy for the local mafia, possesses personal knowledge regarding every mafia member along the East Coast, and so provides the brothers with potential targets. However, Rocco lacks the moral clarity shared by the Irish Catholics, and on more than one occasion kills out of revenge. Rocco is put back onto the moral path when he attempts to kill the federal agent investigating ‘The Saints’; “He isn't to be touched. - He's a good man.” This quote indicates the moral direction of the brothers’ vendetta - only those who are corrupt should be executed; innocents shall not be harmed.

Within the film Doubt, Sister Aloysius represents the decisive and convicted zeal of the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church, and is a contradictive personification of the doubts present throughout the film, including race, sexuality and of course, religion. In her pursuit of truth, Sister Aloysius will stop at nothing to destroy Father Flynn, even if it means endangering the life of one boy, the boy she is trying to protect. However, her ruthlessness should not be taken as a lack of compassion. After all, it is her concern for the welfare of her students that sparks the nun’s investigation. Sister Aloysius represents both the protagonist and antagonist of the film, as well as the harsh but necessary relationship between the children in the school and their religion.

Aspects of Good and Evil

The Boondock Saints explores the idea of a necessary evil. The villains of the film are stereotypical, taking the form of mafia dons, hit men, and lechers. Although murderers themselves, the MacManus brothers are obviously painted as good guys, hunting down the worst of criminals and removing them from the mortal coil. They pick up from where the arm of the law leaves off, ridding Boston of those the police cannot touch. Local residents, police and friends alike claim that there should be a group of ‘Saints’ in every major city, many publically volunteering for the job, reinforcing the notion that vigilantism is not necessarily a crime; indeed, it is something to aspire to.

Unlike The Boondock Saints, the notion of good and evil are not as clear-cut in the film Doubt. Working on her own suspicions and dislike for Father Flynn, Sister Aloysius sets out to prove that the priest is conducting an indecent relationship with a child. However, without any evidence, she fails to convince anyone but herself of his wrongdoing, and by the end of the film, even she begins to doubt her assumptions. As Sister Aloysius is less than scrupulous in conducting her investigation, and Father Flynn continuously protests his innocence throughout the film, it is unclear to the audience upon Doubt’s conclusion just who is the unethical and sinful character.

Armed with the little evidence presented over the duration of Doubt, viewers are left to reconcile their own doubt and make their own assumptions regarding each character’s true nature. In contrast, The Boondock Saints provide the audience with a much more overt presentation of the facts. The vox populi segment at the closing of the film also leaves the viewers to make their own decision regarding the MacManus clan’s action, though it is evident through the overly positive remarks which stance the audience is expected to take.


Axelson T. 2006. Movies, Mind and Meaning – Studying Audience and Favourite Films. Presented to the Fifth International Conference on Media, Religion, and Culture: Mediating Religion in the Context of Cultural Tension.

Duffy T. 1999. The Boondock Saints. Franchise Pictures.

Hjarvard S. 2008. The Mediatization of Religion: A Theory of the Media as Agents of Religious Change. Northern Lights. 6,1.

Shanley J.P. 2008. Doubt. Miramax Films.

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