Calvary is a must-see Catholic film
The first half of 2014 saw the release of a number of high-profile films with religious themes which have ranged in quality from abysmal to decent. I don’t even need to tell you to forget them all, because you probably have already. The only one you need to see came out last month – and I wish I had seen it earlier so I could have told you to see it sooner. It is called Calvary; it is a great film and an even more important one.
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Calvary begins with Fr. James Lavelle (beautifully acted by Brendon Gleeson) in the confessional. A man enters, and from the other side of the screen we hear his voice telling Fr. James that he was raped by a now-deceased priest at the age of seven. He has never told this to anyone else and has no interest in seeking professional help.
Instead, he says, he is going to kill Fr. James when they meet next Sunday, in a week’s time. The man wants to kill Fr. James precisely because he is innocent: “There’s no point in killing a bad priest… But killing a good one, that’d be a shock. They wouldn’t know what to make of that.”
Fr. James knows who the man is from his voice, but, not knowing whether the death threat is serious, prefers not to involve the police. With this shadow hanging over him, he begins his pastoral duties for the week while considering how he should prepare to meet his would-be murderer come Sunday.
Thus the scene is set for an extraordinary religious drama which John Michael McDonagh, Calvary’s writer and director, compares to Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, based on the classic novel by Georges Bernanos.
McDonagh has been pegged as a maker of black comedies, and though Calvary is anything but a comedy at its core, it is often a savagely funny film. (Its snappy dialogue and eccentric characters reminded me of In Bruges – also starring Brendan Gleeson – and as it turns out, that film was made by McDonagh’s brother Martin.)
The humor is more than just gags, however, as it is a crucial part of the film’s characterization. The wisecracks of many of the people Fr. James encounters often serve as a way to feign indifference to this priest whose mere presence in a room alters the social and spiritual dynamic. As we get to know these men and women, their gibes begin to betray a deep despair or a foul and brutal cynicism.
The small-town setting of beautiful County Sligo, Ireland, only serves to intensify the dynamic between Fr. James and the community he serves. Catholic or not, everyone must reckon with their local priest – after all, the town has only one pub.
Much of Fr. James’s heroism lies in his Christlike insistence on remaining vulnerable amidst the real and feigned indifference, or even hostility, of his flock. Indeed, that is all he can do for many of them, so clearly set in their ways – probably what Abp. Chaput was referring to when he called Calvary “the best portrayal of a good priest in impossible circumstances I’ve seen in several decades.”
Fr. James’s integrity is highlighted all the more in contrast with his fellow parish priest, who is shockingly loose with details about the confessions he hears and only manifests passion at the prospect of a large donation from a wealthy new member of the community: “You might as well be a clerk at an insurance firm,” Fr. James admonishes him.
Many Catholic reviewers have focused on this movie’s portrayal of a heroic priest, but it should not be forgotten that this heroism is shown precisely in the face of the spiritual ruin wrought by Church leaders who abused their authority. McDonagh is unsparing in his portrayal of the spiritual rot of a once-Catholic culture.
The death threat overshadowing the film is merely one manifestation of this, and probably of less spiritual gravity than the disillusionment and distrust faced by Fr. James on a daily basis. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, a friendly conversation with a young girl he meets walking to the beach is cut short when her father arrives and pulls her away, assuming indecent intent on the good priest’s part. It is the confusion and heartbreak Fr. James experiences in that moment, not the prospect of being murdered, that nearly drive him to a breaking point.
Yet there are moments of light from which he draws solace, if even these are often earned from suffering. There is his tender relationship with his troubled daughter (Fr. James is a widower and a late vocation). There is the profound faith of a French woman whose husband Fr. James gives last rites. There is the priest’s friendship with the elderly American to whom he ministers, and with the altar boy whom he mentors. And here and there are little signs that a few walls of indifference may be cracking under the weight of a forgiveness that is greater than live-and-let-live.
In an interview with the New York Times, McDonagh said he wanted to challenge himself to create a truly heroic character: “It seems like all characters in movies these days are ironic hipsters. It’s tricky to follow a genuinely good person who’s always being sincere.” McDonagh has done more than give us an utterly believable hero, though – he has painted a true picture of the Catholic priesthood, amid all the messiness and untold sufferings of parish life in a post-Christian age.
What is more, Calvary is not a Catholic propaganda piece but a work of art whose beauty comes from its unflinching reality. For this reason as well as for its superb craftsmanship, it has fared as well among secular critics as among Catholics. It therefore has the potential to cast in new light a vocation non-Catholics often see as alien, incomprehensible or sinister.
For Catholics, on the other hand, it is “an antidote to careerism and pietism and clericalism and romanticism,” as Fr. Richard Cipolla astutely noted. Pope Benedict XVI told us that “we were not made for comfort, but for greatness.” Calvary is not always comfortable to watch, but make no mistake, it is one of the greatest religious films of our time.
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Posted by: Watt Dwineault -
Sep. 16, 2016 2:13 PM ET USA
Wonderful clarity. Sanity is just seeing what is and what should be. We would do well to emulate this lucid depiction of the human condition and learn to express it.
Posted by: Randal Mandock -
May. 16, 2016 8:59 PM ET USA
"It takes an arduous and prolonged schooling of our attitudes and habits to overcome our tendency toward selfishness." In days when the U.S. military operated under the assumption of moral rectitude, basic training and day-to-day discipline presupposed one's duty to both the individual and common good. As an example, in 1972 Marine Corps boot camp we were taught by way of humor on the circuit course the moral evil of cannibalism of infants and violation of women. The lesson defied the stereotype
Posted by: TheJournalist64 -
May. 15, 2016 9:05 AM ET USA
Yes. The dominant culture has totally accepted an Occamite view of the world, in which there are no universals, in which every individual is radically individual and--in a Presidential candidate's words from 1993--able to determine "the kind of people we want to become." Hence the recent and lamented bathroom ordinance from the White House, which will prove, if it stands, that the frog is now boiling.
Posted by: Bernadette -
May. 15, 2016 1:08 AM ET USA
I like Pope Francis's "I am a sinner" response to the question of "who are you?" I can relate to that totally and one would think that most people would as well. What I am having difficulty understanding (knowing full well our bent toward concupiscence) why there seem to be so many with varied and multifarious "desires." Usually of the sexual kind. I am told there are at least 60 different gender combinations. Am I totally naive or why this absurd concern or obsession with deviant sex?
Posted by: howland5905 -
May. 13, 2016 9:25 PM ET USA
Thanks Jeff. Profound and well put. To put it all another way, for the time being Christ is not running the show down here (2 Cor 4:4). I look forward to reading your further thoughts.
Posted by: ElizabethD -
May. 13, 2016 7:42 PM ET USA
Before returning to the Church a decade ago I used to be someone who completely bought into the gender ideology and the idea of the goodness of homosexual relationships. One thing absent from my worldview was a living sense of God as Creator whose creation proceeds from His Word which has/is a rational intellect, and the true good of the creatures as corresponding to the will and purposes of God. The standard of all things is the mind and will of God, not our own limited and very fallible minds.
Posted by: loumiamo -
May. 13, 2016 6:25 PM ET USA
I'm not an expert in philosophy. I'd grade my own knowledge of the subject no higher than BA, for Barely Adequate. Even so, I'm amazed that u had so much patience to endure ur exchange with that completely lost "catholic." I know Catholics often ignore the Bible, but "male and female He made them," after His likeness. Gen 1:27. Only by the union of man & wife can we approach the likeness of God, which is why He created us. Indulging in any other sexuality is the road to perdition, not nirvana.