Review by Leonard Freeman
“I first tasted semen when I was seven years old” is an opening line that tells you Calvary will not be a family film.
Fr. James (Brendan Gleeson) hears these words through the grate of the confessional, telling a story of degradation and hurt, bitterness and revenge. For years as a young boy, the speaker tells him, he was raped by the priests, and now he has come for his revenge, but with a twist. To kill a good priest, an innocent one, will make a statement, and Fr. James is to be that one. “I’m goin’ ta kill ya, b’cause you’re innocent. … Sunday a week, let’s say, I’ll meet you down a’the beach there.”
Directed by John Michael McDonagh
Who is it? Who-will-have-done-it is one level of the film Calvary. The cuckolded butcher who plays chess with his wife’s African lover? The bitter pub-owner? The semi-closeted gay police inspector? The male prostitute who makes fun of his time with the “bishops”? The seen-it-all debauched captain of industry whose wife and family have left him?
But deeper here lies a story about the hard trials and direct faithful life of a village priest whose vocation has come to disrepute from the sins of those who have gone before him.
As the title Calvary suggests, we are looking at the suffering and potential sacrifice of an innocent victim for the sins of others. How will this week end for Fr. James? And will it make a difference?
The voice did not offer contrition or repentance, Fr. James tells his bishop. He may even recognize the voice. But he has no proof and does not want to further victimize. And so we walk through an intimate week with this priest, like Jesus on his way to Jerusalem aware of the threat about him, yet hard and clear in his work of trying to be an intervention of God’s love into the lives of his parishioners.
In the day-to-day events that follow, the death threat almost seems to disappear. This is a hardscrabble Irish town, bleak, with sores out for all to see, whose parishioners come to Mass — for what? is an unspoken question. These are lives so very ruined, or in hurt, yet not seeming to really want redemption.
It is a mental picture that many an ordained person, working in tough circumstances amid a culture that seems to have lost respect for, or faith in, the Church, may well recognize.
How we as a church have fallen in public regard is encapsulated in a scene in which Fr. James chat with a young girl on her way down to the shore. Her father drives up, yanks her into his car, and yells, “What did you say to my daughter?” as if the cassock alone is proof of child molestation.
Brendan Gleeson, perhaps best known as Professor “Mad Eye” Moody in the Harry Potter films, is brilliant as the massive bear of a man who has his own hauntings. A widower, he came to his vocation late in life. It is a wound that still haunts his grown daughter, who along the way has tried to commit suicide. “Ah, ya made the classic mistake,” the local atheist doctor chides her, “cutting across and not down.”
There is a moment when Fr. seems to have given up on his people and will leave in the face of their increasing hostility. Why should he risk death for such ingrates? On the stairs to the airplane out, he is called back by the experience of a woman whose young husband has just been killed. Yet she affirms the love of God: “We had a very good life together. We loved each other very much. And [his death] is not unfair. That just happened. A good many people don’t live good lives, don’t know love. … I feel sorry for them.”
He and we go back for the final confrontation on that beach, which comes hard.
And yet at film’s close we see perhaps the touch of something — forgiveness, grace? — in another confrontation, and a hinted smile, affirming quietly that the lives of innocent victims and forgiveness may indeed make a difference.
A prophetic film in the best sense, Calvary speaks to a dark reality for churches today, raising along the way many of the most troublesome questions of faith, while affirming the truth of God’s grace at work amid even the darkest of moments.
The Rev. Leonard Freeman, former director of communications for Trinity Wall Street and Washington National Cathedral, has written film reviews for more than 40 years.