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.
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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