Calvary Won’t Set you Free
Disquieting opening lines, already trotted out in the trailers, let us know there will be nothing overly pious about the film we are about to see. No near-death experience in which someone sees the light. No grand biblical heroes indistinguishable from comic-book superheroes. No soft focus. No CGI. No puppies.
John Michael McDonagh’s reflective new movie, Calvary, offers a striking antidote to the other “religious films” of 2014. Considering the comic casting (including Chris O’Dowd from Bridesmaids and Dylan Moran from Shaun of the Dead), and McDonagh’s previous film The Guard, the religious subject matter of the film may be surprising. Its sensitivity to religious matters is even more so.
Calvary portrays a Roman Catholic Church that has abused its authority, but questions what occurs in the wake of that abuse. By extension, the film is also questioning the formation of social order in a secular world. Where does authority come from? Whose ethics are put in place? Is forgiveness possible? Or, as Ezekiel asked long ago, “How should we then live?”
James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is the wholly likeable protagonist-priest of a small Irish village. Gleeson grew out a beard for the role, giving him a gentle, teddy-bear quality, and in many scenes he wears a long black cassock which, instead of merely distinguishing him from the others, makes him more approachable.
Residents of the village have plenty of animosity toward the church in the wake of cover-ups of widespread sexual abuse. Father James, though, is mostly tolerated. He passes out bread and wine during Mass on the weekend, and in the evenings can be found at the local public house downing dark beers with the locals. As one of them says, he is “a good man, a fine man. Nobody around here has a bad word to say about him.” He says there’s too much talk about sins, and not enough about virtues. He comforts the lonely and bereaved, and takes the arrogant down a few notches. In short, he’s the kind of priest we could all use a whole lot more of.
We know that no good man can get through a film and not have that goodness challenged, tested, or twisted. Someone has it out for Father James, as we’ve learned from the first lines. It is Sunday, and we hear the voice of a man in the confessional booth tell the priest he is going to kill him. The confessee was sexually abused by a priest, repeatedly, when he was young; his earliest memories include the taste of semen. Now the man is seeking revenge, not on a corrupt priest, but, importantly, on an innocent one. No one cares about the death of a bad priest. But a good priest? Now that will raise some eyebrows. Here is a sacrifice that might atone for the sins of others.
Father James recognizes the voice, while we the audience are not privy to the identity, but he does little to protect himself from the promised violence. The anticipation of a violent act lurks below the surface, but Father James, and the movie, are in no hurry. Instead, the camera follows him around as he meets various villagers in and out of their everyday lives and troubles. It’s a holy week, stretching from Sunday to Sunday, as he engages his parish, any one of whom might be the killer.
The parish becomes a line-up of suspects, each one a character type. Encounters with them become small parables about the possibilities of life available beyond the church.
Dr. Frank Harte (Aiden Gillen) is the man of science who sees seemingly random suffering on a routine basis at the hospital and then lets loose with women, alcohol, and cocaine. Dr. Harte lambasts Father James’s world of fantasy, as the priest seems to take it in stride, realizing there is no real argument to the contrary. Jack Brennan (Chris O’Dowd) is the butcher, a bit slow of thought and lacking some comprehension of the world. As the priest and butcher talk amidst a mise-en-scene of slaughtered animals, Brennan mentions a woman: “I think she’s bipolar. Or lactose intolerant. One of the two. I don’t know.” We’re not sure if this is funny, or he really doesn’t understand such differences, though again Father James doesn’t have much of a risible reaction. But the rich, drunken landowner Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran) gets under Father James’s skin. Fitzgerald shows his arrogance by taking a valuable painting (Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors) off a wall of his house and urinating on it. Father James knows that Fitzgerald is pissing his life away, literally and figuratively, and knows that God is not on the side of the wealthy.
And then there is Father James’s daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) who arrives in the village after a suicide attempt. The father-daughter conversations punctuate the film, and their affection gives the story a gracious tone. At one point she sits in a confessional booth with her father, the Father, and talks out some of her suicidal thoughts. A revealing conversation tells of how she felt abandoned by him when he joined the clergy after her mother’s death: she feels she lost both parents.
Calvary depicts a land freeing itself from the constraints of the church, from the ethics of obedience to commandments, from the compulsions of hell. Father James dwells among them, though retains little authority, like the church itself. He still hands out Communion to those who come, but the parish is hollowed out. When the church building burns down Father James is upset, even if no one seems surprised. The church itself becomes the sacrifice that allows society to live on. But at what cost is not clear.
The alternatives to the ethical and spiritual influence of religion are not all they are cracked up to be. The smart and rational-minded fritter life away with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The commoners don’t appear to have the sense to make sense. The rich piss it away. The sensitive become self-destructive to the point of suicide.
While under the shadow of a corrupt church, Calvary ultimately questions the integrity and sustainability of a secular world. The final scene repeats the opening scene, even as it inverts it. The secular confessional seems dim by comparison.
S. Brent Plate is a writer, editor, and part-time college professor at Hamilton College. Recent books include A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects: Bringing the Spiritual To Its Senses (Beacon Press) and Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-creation of the World (Columbia University Press). His essays have appeared at Salon, The Los Angeles Review of Books, America, The Christian Century, and The Islamic Monthly. More at www.sbrentplate.net or on Twitter @splate1.