Film Review – Calvary
Although I have been an atheist for most of my adult life, I went to Sunday school all the time when I was a kid. (Which was kind of weird considering my mom never went to church. But I guess one should never underestimate the power of free babysitting.) Anyway, when I realized I was reviewing Calvary, the new film directed by John Michael McDonagh, I thought maybe I should brush up a little on the story of Christ. (Just to be clear: while I do not believe, and I think that it is weird that other people do, I’m not going to be making fun of anyone’s religion here. But knowing about Jesus’s last days are important to understanding this movie, and I did have to look some stuff up.) Calvary (aka Gologotha) is the site where Christ was crucified outside of Jerusalem. Jesus knows all of this is going to happen before he gets arrested, so when it happens he goes willingly, because his death is what this is all about. His death serves the purpose of cleansing the sins of all people, so that we can all be forgiven. (I don’t really understand how that works.) But the key point for our purposes is that he willingly sacrifices himself for the benefit of everybody.
Calvary starts in the confessional. Irish priest Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is engaged by an unknown male parishioner who confronts him with the abuse he suffered as a child at another priest’s hands. The man informs Father James that it would do no good to kill a guilty priest in revenge, but the killing of a good priest, well that would be something, wouldn’t it. He directs Father James to meet him at the beach next Sunday, where he will then kill him. Father James then has a truly horrible week. He has to deal with open marriages, the legacy of colonialism, past abuse scandals, violence against the church (and his person), and the fact that everybody in his parish is awful except for an elderly American writer played by M. Emmet Walsh. (Whom I ADORE, fyi.) His week is lightened somewhat by the presence of his daughter – he was married before he became a priest – who has come home to be nurtured after a failed suicide attempt. But always on his mind is how he is going to approach Sunday’s meeting on the beach.
There is a lot of good stuff here. Brendan Gleason is a wonderful actor and gives Father James an aura of decency and integrity that makes it believable he has a true vocation. There are also great performances by Chris O’Dowd as one half of the open marriage, Kelly Reilly as Father James’s daughter, and Marie-Josée Croze as a French tourist whose husband dies while visiting Ireland. The film itself is ambitious in paralleling Father James’s story with that of Christ’s. I admire that ambition, and I applaud the director’s effort to tell a story using religious allusions. Which makes it incredibly frustrating that this film did not work for me.
There are two things that prevented me engaging with it, the first being its unrelenting bleak view of human nature. Father James is not just having a crappy week, he’s having the worst week ever. And all of this is compounded by how nasty everybody he ministers to is. The local doctor is not just an atheist, he a sarcastic, nasty, baiting one. The bar owner doesn’t just question the authority of the church, he goads Father James into an act of violence. The people in this movie need to be somewhat flawed in order for the parallels with the Christ story to work: religiously speaking, Jesus dies for our sins, not for our virtues. And he makes that decision willingly, knowing that we can be a hateful species. And Father James must figure out how to save one soul under the same circumstances. But it’s a hard slog to get through.
The second, and much bigger, problem for me was the tone. This is a serious movie that questions the role of the Catholic Church in Irish life after the revelations of priestly abuse, an economic meltdown (which hit Ireland particularly hard), and the secularization of society. Brendon Gleason and many of the other actors in the film are fine comedic actors and that comedy shines through in many of the slice-of-life scenes where Father James is going about his business. However, there is an air of flippancy to his final scene that is out of place and absolutely ruined it for me. (I need to go back and see if it is actually there, or if what had gone on before had just influenced my reading of it.) This film did not work for me, but its failures are noble ones, and there is a lot here to talk about should you decide to see it.