Published on May 15, 2014
CALVARY's Father James (BRENDAN GLEESON) is a good priest who is faced with sinister and troubling circumstances brought about by a mysterious member of his parish. Although he continues to comfort his own fragile daughter (KELLY REILLY) and reach out to help members of his church with their various scurrilous moral - and often comic - problems, he feels sinister and troubling forces closing in, and begins to wonder if he will have the courage to face his own personal Calvary.
When a religiously-themed film has no agenda towards either evangelism or secularism, it's amazing just how legitimately thought-provoking it can be. Calvary, about a week-in-the-life of a small town Irish priest (driven by a mystery that’s dramatically set in the opening scene), is a film that doesn’t have the conversion of its audience on its mind – either to or from Christianity. Rather, it’s an honest look at the cross a Catholic priest must carry in a world that’s hostile to his faith, and it’s a cross that includes the burden of a Church that bears some responsibility for that hostility.
Calvary seems like the kind of movie that Pope Francis might endorse because it's not inherently pro-Catholic but, rather, pro-authentic. It's more sympathetic to this priest than to the Church he represents – yet even while the pedophilia issue that has haunted Catholicism is a core undercurrent here, the film is respectful to the faith itself as it’s sincerely carried out by Father James (Brendan Gleeson, Harry Potter's Mad-Eye Moody), and even offers a fair – but not judgmental – critique of those who mock it.
The film opens on a single, uncut take of Father James listening to a confession – one that ends up being a declaration of vengeance, not contrition. After the confessor details how he was molested and violated by a Catholic priest, he threatens Father James (who's wholly innocent) with retaliation, believing it makes more of a statement to enact retribution on a blameless priest than it does on a guilty one. It's something the confessor (whose identity is kept from us) will carry out in a week's time, and the tension of that mystery drives the film's tone even as the narrative explores the priest's day-to-day life and relationship with the laity of this Irish seaside community (one of whom is the confessor).
Father James' response to the threat is spiritual, not legal. He doesn't report the confessor to the police, despite his bishop freeing James from the confidentiality of the confessional oath. In no way does James try to stop the inevitable confrontation; he simply prepares for it.
He does so rather meekly, and not even directly; just simply by going about his week as he normally would, engaging parishioners, neighbors and friends. These interactions and relationships make up the bulk of the story (as we guess who among them may be that confessor), and they reveal a society that is at best indifferent to the church but, more often than not, defiant towards it.
Father James does not force his counsel upon these people; they seek him out. But in short order, it's clear they're looking for something else other than spiritual growth. Some are just intent on provoking him. Others want to talk, even confess – but not truly repent. Or if they seek absolution, it's motivated by selfishness rather than humility. As one person so candidly puts it, "I feel like I ought to feel guilty." But of course he doesn't. Nobody does. They don't take their vows, sacraments, or faith seriously. The only Scriptures they know are the ones that proof-text their compromises, not the ones that challenge them. They flaunt their sin, open and unashamed, to which Father James observes, "There's a lot of that going around."
What we see, as this week unfolds, is a priest fighting against his human frustration with the cavalier amorality of the age – and with how he is so openly disrespected – yet continues to engage these people with love, charity, and pastoral honesty. Brendan Gleeson brings these traits to life with a deep pious sincerity on one hand, yet a conflicted – and understandably human – vulnerability on the other. He's facing the greatest test of both his faith and his life, and simultaneously rises to the challenge while collapsing under it.
As this conflict progresses and builds, as it pushes James' benevolence to the breaking point, and then crescendos toward the fated climax, the title of Calvary goes from being a token Christian reference to an intentionally specific metaphor. Father James takes on whatever cross he must, even when he'd rather the cup pass from him, because he's not seeking justice; he's seeking redemption and reconciliation – not for himself but for others. And even if he must bear the sins of others (along with their costs), then so be it.
For a film without a fiber of evangelistic intent, director John Michael McDonagh (The Guard) does more to honestly depict the walk of faith – at both its noblest and its darkest – than most so-called and self-proclaimed "Christian" movies ever do. Even with good motives considered, most become bogged down by the weight of their bias and an incessant need to provide a warm comfort and hope. That's admirable, and can even be true, but occasionally we also need trials of faith that don't resolve with the removal of a cross but rather the completion of it, where the faithful aren't looking for relief from their suffering but rather a willingness to identify with and share in Christ's.
In the end, Calvary – which is beautifully shot and patiently paced – is about a priest who chooses to be Christ, and the struggle (and occasional failure) to be righteous when you're also human. He looks at the growing spiritual void of the world around him and wonders if there's "too much talk about sin, and not enough about virtues." Father James sees a world in pain from the festering repercussions of anger, adultery, abuse, violence, and vice, and concludes, "I think forgiveness has been highly underrated." And in the quiet wallop of a final moment, we see the suggestion of forgiveness at its most pure and therefore most extreme: when it doesn't deserve to be given, especially by the giver.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):
Publication date: July 31, 2014
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