John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, the follow up to his 2011 triumph The Guard, finally made it to central Arkansas after some weeks of limited release in the United States. The film premiered at Sundance early in the year, and opened in Great Britain and Ireland in April, where it won the IFTA (Irish Film and Television Awards) for best film, best screenplay (by McDonagh), and best performance by an actor for Brendan Gleeson as the Irish priest James Lavelle. Gleeson is, as always, outstanding, as he was in The Guard and as he was in In Bruges (2008), the work of McDonagh’s talented brother Martin.
While The Guard was essentially a comedy, Calvary is a devastating movie. That’s not to say there isn’t some very dark humor in the film. But the humor is like cinematographer Larry Smith’s beautiful scenes of the bright Irish landscape and coastline: it contrasts vividly with the bleak and depressed lives of the people of Sligo, where the film is set and was filmed.
Calvary opens with a shocking scene, set in the confessional and filmed completely in closeup of Gleeson’s face. He listens to a confessant tell him that from the age of seven he had been raped on a weekly basis by his parish priest. As the confessant’s story continues, Gleeson’s face subtly displays compassion, anger and hopelessness when he learns the priest is dead and cannot be brought to justice, frustration at not being able to do anything to help the confessant and finally puzzlement and fear when the confessant declares his intent to murder a priest in revenge. Not a bad priest, though, but rather Father James himself, whom the confessant knows to be a good priest. No one would take note of the death of a bad priest, the voice says, but the death of a good priest will make people notice. The voice gives Father James one week to get his affairs in order, and says he will meet the priest at the shore on the morning of “Sunday week.” “Certainly a startling opening line,” Gleeson deadpans in response.
The point of killing the good priest—if it has a point in the mind of this very disturbed individual—seems to be that the Church as an institution is to blame, presumably for covering up the abuses and for protecting the abusive priests instead of the abused children. The Church has lost its integrity to the extent that even the innocent priests are tainted by association with it. Thus the film’s title, Calvary: the hill on which the sinless Jesus Christ died for the sins of others becomes the symbol of Father James’ predicament.
We learn fairly quickly that Father James had recognized the voice and knows which of his parishioners has threatened to kill him. He sees his bishop about the threat, but will not reveal the man’s name or call in the authorities. The bishop provides us with a view of the Church bureaucracy—concerned with the legalities of the situation and the specific rules governing the confessional, and seemingly oblivious to the human spiritual suffering involved in the situation, he never stops eating his lunch during father James’ first conversation with him.
The film follows Father James through his week, as he goes about his pastoral duties visiting, counseling and sometimes confronting his parishioners and others in the community. We are at first chiefly interested in which one of the characters has actually threatened to kill Father James. But we soon become involved in their own pained lives and wonder whether they will be able to shake off the burdens of their existence and find any kind of salvation. There is Veronica Brennan (Orla O’Rourke), who is carrying on a fairly open affair with an Ivorian immigrant, the mechanic Simon (Isaach de Bankolé), in the face of her butcher husband Jack (Chris O’Dowd). Father James tries to discover whether it is her husband or lover who has been beating her.
The priest also tries to talk the awkward and lonely Milo (Killian Scott) out of joining the army, where he wants to be able to kill others. He visits an aging and depressed American expatriate writer (M. Emmet Walsh), who asks Father James to bring him a gun so that he can kill himself. He meets with a drunken millionaire (Dylan Moran) who wants to give money to the Church because he thinks he ought to seem to be penitent for driving people into poverty while making a fortune himself. Father James agrees with the local bankrupted pub keeper (Pat Shortt) that the bankers whose actions put Ireland into the economic depression evident in the film are guilty of sins as black as any. And he puts up with the jibes of the atheistic doctor (Aiden Gillen), at least until the doctor pushes too hard with a story of a helpless and terrified three-year old who awakes from an operation deaf, mute and blind and cannot communicate with or receive comfort from anyone—an allegory, perhaps of an abused child.
One thing that becomes clear as the week goes on is that Father James’ rural Irish parishioners, though most of them still attend mass, have nothing but contempt for the Church as a human institution that has failed to protect the weakest and neediest among them. The Church has lost its moral authority. As the pub keeper tells Father James, “your time has gone and you don’t even realize it.” But Father James does not believe this is true. He continues to perform his priestly role. He comforts those who need comforting. He confronts those who need confronting. He argues with those who he believes are wrong in their thinking. He is certainly judgmental and admits it. But he never stops trying to bring people comfort when they are in need. In one scene, he visits a convicted murderer in prison, one despised by everyone else because of the heinous nature of his crimes. While he refuses to allow the killer to excuse his deeds, or to pretend a false repentance, he defends his visit to the prison when others challenge him, saying “no one is beyond redemption.” Certainly this is a large part of his motivation in continuing to work with his parishioners, even the one who has threatened him.
Two other scenes underscore Father James’ motivations and the movie’s thematic concerns. In one, he gives last rites to a Frenchman killed in a freak accident. In an eerie parallel to his own potential situation, the Frenchman has died for no purpose, and in a discussion with the victim’s wife (Marie-Josee Croze) he mentions that such random accidents often cause survivors like herself to abandon their faith in God. The Frenchwoman replies that their faith must have been pretty shallow to begin with, and Father James agrees that most people’s faith really is simply fear of death. The priest, looking at death himself in a few days, will have his own faith tested this way.
The other scene involves Father James’ daughter, Fiona (Kelly Riley)—James had answered a call to the priesthood after his wife died. Fiona, herself a failed suicide with her own demons to grapple with, resents his absentee parenting. Father James tells her that he feels there has been “too much talk about sins” in people’s lives, and “not enough talk about virtue.” What is the greatest virtue? Forgiveness, Father James says, “has been highly underrated.”
For what was the original Calvary about if not forgiveness? That seems to be McDonagh’s underlying theme. Few reviewers of the film have made much of the headnote from Saint Augustine: “Do not despair: One of the thieves was saved. Do not presume: one of the thieves was not.” But this dichotomy provides the structure for the entire film, as Father James visits with his parishioners, all of whom are either despairing or presumptuous, and we cannot help but consider which of the characters might be saved and which might not. Certainly Father James has his own Gethsemane moment in the film, when he seems to give up on his people and his faith, but ultimately, since the priest believes that no one is beyond redemption, he offers them all forgiveness. Who does and does not take it in the end is the legacy of the story.
McDonagh has been quoted saying that with all the global uproar over abusive Catholic clergy, he wanted to do the opposite of what was expected: He wanted to make a film about a good priest, a film about forgiveness rather than condemnation. I definitely recommend you go to the theater to see this quiet gem of a film, so that you can judge for yourself how well he has succeeded.