With all of the hoopla about priests in the Catholic Church, I would have thought that the movie world would have latched on to the stories and made some movies about the scandals. But then, I suppose no one wants to take on the church. When I consider how much damage to the world came from the Catholic church, I cannot understand how there can still be believers but I guess you cannot argue with belief in God even if it is a god that was constructed by the church.
In “Calvary”, we meet a priest who is threatened while hearing confession. Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is a good man (or so he wants us to believe) who is intent on making the world a better place but at the same time he is constantly shocked and saddened by the spiteful inhabitants in the town where he lives.
Lavelle learns of his own impending door while hearing confession from a victim of sexual abuse. The confessor lets Father know that he has one week to get himself together. He has no idea who made this threat to him and he is determined to find out who it is. He has a list of “could bes”—local cuckolded butcher Jack Brennan (O’Dowd), his bed-hopping wife Veronica (Orla O’Rourke) or perhaps even her Ghana-born lover Simon Asamoah (Isaach de Bankolé). But the arrival of Lavelle’s troubled daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) makes everything even more difficult and Sunday is quickly approaching.
It is Brendan Gleeson who shoulders the weight of this film and he is excellent as a man wrestling with the dark forces of human fallibility. We see Father James (his name is only revealed late in the film and then as a casual aside) the embodiment of good but he has been knocked about a bit. Father James is the best sort of priest, one who has been both of the world and in it, and who has chosen to reject the secular life from a position of experience. He has been married, is a father, and has contended with a drink problem, and while his nemesis sees him as innocent, James is anything but; he understands the struggles of others because he knows the world.
The film looks at those who are emotionally detached from the abhorrent suffering that the abused have felt. Many Catholics – both layman and cleric – have not encountered the horrors that an unfortunate number have, yet are nevertheless linked to it by association. The results are emotions of anger and confusion: How can the very same Church that teaches charity, goodwill and sanctity of life, have such monsters within its ranks and so many of them?
Father James is placed in a predicament of potentially fatal consequence when a threat on his life is delivered during confession. The killer-to-be is himself a victim of clerical abuse, and decides the best revenge is to kill a good priest (on a Sunday no less). With one week to find who made the threat, Father Lavelle has to also contend with an increasingly hostile community, with each member more messed up than then next and harboring strong anti-Catholic sentiment.
Director John Michael McDonagh successfully establishes the anger and bitterness that is in itself a force that good Father Lavelle must combat and we are aware that what we hear are the results of a never ending stream of allegations that in particular has rocked Roman Catholic Ireland to its core. McDonagh dives deep into murky waters in his decision to set this darkly comedic story of persecution and forgiveness in the throes of such a horrific scandal, yet so he does with a biting, dark humor and it works. Gleeson brings qualities of wit, heart and integrity to this role of a priest burdened with the sins of others who share the same uniform, yet do not fill it with the same goodness and faith.
“Calvary” emerges directly from the current crisis of Irish Catholicism brought about by sexual abuse by priests and its institutional covering-up. The theme is most explicitly displayed when James has a friendly conversation with a young girl, only for her angry father to intervene, equating cassocks with pedophilia. The film has a large cast of eccentric people and this to me was not necessary—the twitchiness of the sexually frustrated Milo or rent-boy Leo’s relentless Cagney impersonations do nothing to advance the plot. Yet Gleeson’s performance is one of magnificent intensity and the palpable wit and intelligence of the film’s conception.
So do you think I am going to tell you how this ends— you know I won’t. The film is one that must be seen if for no other reason than it is a provocatively involving thriller and a real rarity in cinema – “a genuinely compelling moral and theological investigation”. It is a witty, thoughtful and relevant examination into the far-reaching effects of the Catholic sex abuse crisis.
As a point of clarification, Calvary is Latin for the site where Jesus was crucified. Only fitting that McDonagh uses it as a title for a film not only of deep religious conviction, but that also looks at the nature of sacrifice as atonement for the sins of others. This is an outstanding and moving achievement that should be seen by all.