Calvary is Bleak, But Can it Kick?

Calvary

Brendan Gleeson is a mountain. Tall, broad, swathed in a black soutane buttoned from neck to knees, he lurches through Sligo’s wild green countryside, red-haired and white-bearded, a real old-fashioned picture of a priest. The tricky thing is that this is 2014, and the Irish Catholic church has lost much of its moral authority due to the priestly abuse scandals, the aftereffects of which set the events of Michael McDonagh’s film Calvary into motion.

Gleeson’s Father James embodies many of the contradictions of what it means to be a priest today. A recovering alcoholic, the father of a depressed adult daughter, and a widower who found his vocation in midlife, he’s stuck at a tiny parish with a bean-counting younger priest and a dog as his only steady companions. Father James is both deeply empathetic, and, like many priests, a bit of a puzzle to figure out. Gleeson’s face mirrors the creased and blasted surface of Benbulbin Mountain, which looms over the film like a portent. But many other things loom over Calvary like portents: its supporting characters, its plot, its swollen soundtrack, and its compelling but oddly incomplete attempt to explicate what forgiveness means in an age when organized religion may be dying, but little has stepped up to take its pace.

The plot is set into motion in the most old-fashioned of Catholic symbols, the confessional. A male voice tells Father James that he was raped by a priest as a child, and, as an act of revenge, he will kill Father James at an appointed time. Why not kill the abuser? He’s already dead, and besides, the killer tells the priest, killing a bad priest is nothing. But killing a good one, well, that’s a film.

Had nearly every supporting character in Calvary worn a sandwich board reading “BAD GUY” or “BAD GIRL” the film’s depiction of evil would have been more subtle than it actually is.

And Father James, as Calvary points out, is indeed a good priest. A man of prayer and a man of action, he listens to people, counsels them, and sits with them through moments of pain, loss and confusion. There is no moral middle ground in Calvary: there is only sin, sinners, and sinfulness, with the slightest glimpse of something like redemption.

Juxtaposed against that kind of fallen world, any priest who doesn’t abuse children or drink away the parish funds would probably be wearing a halo, but Gleeson makes it clear that Father James’ goodness is earned through suffering. The world around him is ugly and corrupt, and pain flickers across his face in moments of encounter with that ugliness. But it’s merely a registration of the fact that suffering is inescapable. Father James moves on, full speed ahead, to compassion.

Nonetheless, the film depicts the kind of place where the town tart wears a leopard print coat and red lipstick; the town doctor is a cokehead whose paths drip oily facetiousness (and is played by Game of Thrones’ Aiden Gillen, aka Littlefinger, with his Littlefinger moustache and soul patch intact); the town rich guy pees on Renaissance paintings, because, in Calvary, metaphor is a hammer.

The town butcher is adorable Chris O’Dowd from Bridesmaids trying to be creepy and mostly failing. This sets up dichotomies that have very little to do with the reality of what it means to have or lose faith. Had nearly every supporting character in Calvary worn a sandwich board reading “BAD GUY” or “BAD GIRL” the film’s depiction of evil would have been more subtle than it actually is.

At some point, the events of the film began to pile up in such increasingly dire measures that I couldn’t recall if (spoiler alert) Father James’ church had burned down and he had ministered to a new widow and discovered his dog had died and dealt with his daughter’s attempted suicide all on the same day, or whether the poor guy had actually gotten a night’s sleep in between.

In the end, that insistence on depicting the world as a place where grace can only be fleeting and rarely glimpsed turns Calvary from a subtle examination of what forgiveness and goodness mean into something else. It veers into cliché and cartoonishness, which is unfortunate, because Gleeson’s performance is both subtle and thoughtful.

Calvary posits that faith is mostly a fear of death, but in reality, like Gleeson’s performance, faith is a living, changing, malleable thing. His Father James helps us understand why people still need religion: because all of us, in one way are another, are sad and alone, and a person who will sit with you in your loneliness can be a source of deep consolation. Samuel Beckett understood this, but he also understood that the reverse of that bleakness is the kicking and fighting desire for life that we all possess. Calvary has its bleakness. But in the end it lacks the fight.

  • apotropoxy

    “Had nearly every supporting character in Calvary worn a sandwich board reading “BAD GUY” or “BAD GIRL” the film’s depiction of evil would have been more subtle than it actually is.”
    _____________________________

    You’ve missed the point of film, Kaya. CALVARY is not ” an attempt to explicate what forgiveness means”. It’s an attempt to expose the depth and breadth of the damage done to the faithful by their church and to expiate the horrenda with blood atonement. McDonagh’s central character is a stand-in for Jesus who, although knowing he will be killed, willingly accepts his own Calvary.

  • Jim Reed

    Maybe the point of the film is people should miss the point of the film because they are trying to read the sandwich boards. It is just life. Those who become priests are looking for a way out, and only men are allowed to look. Maybe they are looking for a redo after Jesus blew it.

  • Rmj

    “Those who become priests are looking for a way out”?

    Seriously?

    That’s about as cartoonish a vision of the priesthood as the sandwich boards metaphor.

  • Jim Reed

    What does priesthood mean? Almost any vision of the priesthood is going to be more problematic than no vision at all. But we are always watching to see if anyone can come up with something of value.

  • John Cope

    Any vision of anything will inevitably be more problematic than no vision of nothing.

  • Jim Reed

    At least in religion. The more that people make up, the more wrong they will eventually be, and the strategy is to make up more stuff based on the old stuff, so the problem keeps compounding. It is the opposite strategy from science that keeps discarding what is in error, and zeroing in on what is true.

  • John Cope

    Who gets to decide what’s “true”? What’s allowed to be true? All that is allowed to be true? And how?

  • Jim Reed

    Science decides based on the evidence. Religion decides based on what the ancients believed.

  • John Cope

    Very nicely schematic.

  • Jim Reed

    In ancient times the smartest people in the world created systems for understanding what couldn’t be understood. That is religion. Today, the smartest people in the world understand what they didn’t know, and they long ago moved into science to advance their understanding. They left religion to those who are not the smartest people in the world, and they knowing they can’t compete with the wisdom of the ancients have constructed increasingly apologetic versions of the ancient understandings and knowledge.

  • weylguy

    Calvary’s working title could have been “The Lost World,” since every character in the film other than Father James seems damaged or lost beyond redemption. To me the film was not so much an indictment of abusive priests but the story of a good man trying to make a difference in a world that is increasingly going down the toilet.

    Father James patiently wades through the litany of losers who are without hope or happiness despite money, drugs and illicit relationships, and only once does he waver. His final act is one of forgiveness before the fact, one that he could easily avoid, but instead he chooses to face the music. In the end, all the others continue on their lonesome, meaningless journeys, but Father James has made a difference. Depending on how one sees the end of the film, the difference he makes allows his daughter to confront his killer and (hopefully) move on with her life.

  • Sam Whit

    What does it mean?! I felt like the young protagonist in Kilmov’s ‘Come and See.’ What does it mean when Antoine Doneil stands at the sea’s edge at the end of ‘The 400 Blows’? Where does the Nighttown sequence in ‘Ulysses’ stand in meaning? What does ‘In Bruges’ mean? This is art.