Calvary opens with one the most excruciating lines of dialogue I can recall ever hearing in any film. Spat through a confessional grille, it comes like a stinging slap on the face, both to the audience and to Father James Lavelle. Cautiously, the priest turns the other cheek. In doing so, he implicitly extends an invitation to viewers to do the same.
The opening scene, filmed in a single, static shot, plays as a declaration of war, both by the man behind the grille and by the man behind the camera, writer-director John Michael McDonagh. Where the man behind the grille has trained his sights is clear enough. As a boy, he was horrifically wronged by a priest and his Church; he means to return the favor. And the man behind the camera? Where are his sights set? This is not so readily apparent.
Set in County Sligo on the west coast of Ireland, Calvary confronts the impact of the clerical sex-abuse scandal on the Church in Ireland and the role of the Church in increasingly secular, post-Christian Ireland.
Father James’ antagonist has been deeply wounded by childhood sexual abuse. He has chosen a curious form of revenge: He wants to murder a priest: not a bad priest, he clarifies, but a good one, one who hasn’t harmed him or anyone else. The murder of a bad priest wouldn’t be enough of a statement; it wouldn’t hurt the Church the way he intends to. He will give Father James a week to set his affairs in order, and then kill him the next Sunday. “Killing a priest on a Sunday,” he muses, tickled. “That’s a good one.”
Sometimes misleadingly described as a dark comedy, Calvary is certainly dark, and there are sporadic bits of absurdist humor. In keeping with its title, though, it really is a passion play, with Father James as an innocent victim to be sacrificed for the sins of the Church.
McDonagh has called the film “basically Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest with a few gags thrown in,” and the film name-checks Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos, whose novel Bresson’s film is based on. Like Diary of a Country Priest, Calvary is about a good priest in a small village where attitudes toward him range from benign indifference to contempt and abuse.
Yet where Bresson’s saintly protagonist was a wan young consumptive who could be wounded by something as minor as a saucy schoolgirl impudently flirting with him, Father James — played by the physically imposing Brendan Gleeson in a grizzled beard and cassock that makes him an even more formidable presence — is a battered Celtic warrior who seems impossible to rattle.
Consider his response to that dreadful opening line: He doesn’t wilt or wither; he doesn’t fall over himself to offer apologies or consolations the man doesn’t want. He recognizes that the man wants to be heard, and he listens.
That, in essence, is how Father James spends what may be his last week: trying to discern in each encounter, in each situation, what is needed, what would be most helpful, or at least what would do the least damage. It is not an easy task, for while many people may need him, almost nobody wants him.
He is a bit of a therapist, constable, assistant, marriage counselor and sounding board. At times, he is even a priest; he is also a literal father, with a troubled adult daughter (Kelly Reilly), for he is a late vocation and a widower.
Making things worse rather than better, Father James shares pastoral duties with a younger priest who is alarmingly negligent with the seal of confession and queasily ingratiating toward a local tycoon who may make a sizable donation to salve his own conscience. Eventually, Father James matter-of-factly slaps his assistant priest with an indictment as blunt and dismissive (though not so dramatic) as Thomas More’s damning line to Richard Rich midway through A Man for All Seasons (“Richard, you couldn’t answer for yourself even so far as tonight”).
Watching Father James, I am reminded at turns of two other tales with clerical protagonists who persevere in the face of apparent ineffectuality: Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and Louis Buñuel’s Nazarín. Ah, but those are two stories with two very different morals.
Greene gives us a frail whisky priest whose fragile tenacity in doing the right thing in the absence of any sense of achievement (from the satisfaction of having clearly helped anyone to the consolation of feeling he has pleased God) is the mark of his moral triumph. By contrast, Buñuel offers an upright, charismatic man of the cloth whose ineffectiveness despite his great integrity can be taken as an indictment of the irrelevance of religion.
What about Calvary? Is Father James more like Greene’s whisky priest or Buñuel’s Padre Nazario? Does his dogged perseverance in the teeth of apathy and hostility bespeak heroic virtue or quixotic futility?
The question is complicated by a key difference between Calvary and Diary of a Country Priest: the ambiguity of the denouement. Where Bresson’s protagonist emerges at the far side of his dark night of the soul with a profound experience of transcendence and an unambiguous affirmation that “all is grace,”Calvary ends, in a way, with what might be called a question mark.
As the film ends, there are glimpses of people unaware of the climactic confrontation between the priest and his would-be assassin; and then a crucial word that will soon be spoken between two characters, neither Father James — a word that will tell in some way whether the priest’s convictions and principles ultimately made a difference where it counts most — is not related. In that sense, the priest’s triumph or failure is left open.
Yet it is Father James, alone among the cast, who offers a persuasive, integral, authentic example of what a human being should look like: too honest for cant, too jaded for naiveté, too self-aware for illusions, too solicitous for self-absorption, too fallen for self-righteousness, too down-to-earth for self-importance. I’d have bet money Deliver Us From Evil had a lock on the best movie priest of the year, but Calvary proved me wrong.
His observations are not just orthodox; they are wise. Some of the wisest are also the tersest and simplest. His daughter struggles with clinical depression and has attempted suicide. When he asks her at one point if she thought about those she would have left behind, she replies defiantly, “I belong only to myself.”
“True,” he admits candidly; then, with equal conviction, “False.”
Although he rarely loses his temper or raises his voice, he is pushed too far ministering to a young serial killer (Gleeson’s son Domhnall Gleeson, Bill Weasley from the last two Harry Potter films) by the killer’s rhapsodic remark about “becoming God” while watching the light go out in a victim’s eyes. “No!” the priest barks sharply. “You don’t.”
Surrounded by eccentric, often perverse, caricatures who put the priest through a grueling gauntlet of abuse and humiliation, Father James is the target of considerable authorial harassment. Yet, despite a lapse or two, he retains his dignity, credibility and even, crucially, his sense of humor.
Along the way, he extends to the people of his community, not what he wants for them or thinks they need, but what would actually benefit them. An essay at First Things went so far as to suggest that Calvary made “a case for the necessity of the institutional priesthood.” That’s probably going too far, but certainly the film proposes that a religious vocation lived with integrity offers not only a viable path for a life well lived, but one that can be of genuine service to others if they are open to it.
Why, then, the ambiguous denouement? Shouldn’t a film as obviously allegorical as Calvary have the courage to end with a definite statement?
Perhaps it makes more sense to regard the film not as an allegory, but as a parable.
Consider the Parable of the Prodigal Son — or, as it has more aptly been called, the Parable of the Two Sons. The parable ends with the younger son’s journey complete, but the elder son is left up in the air, for what happens next is up to those to whom the parable was told, who are in the position of the elder brother.
“We have too much talk about sins, to be honest, and not enough about virtues,” Father James remarks in a moment of high duress. “I think forgiveness has been highly underrated.”
This is the word we hope will win out in the denouement. To the extent that we have been wronged, as characters in the film have been wronged, is this the word that will win out in our lives?
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films. He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey. Follow himon Twitter.
Caveat Spectator:Graphic sexual dialogue; heavy obscene language; some disturbing and graphic violent imagery; a depiction of cocaine use. Adults.