A guest post by friend of the zine Zac Fergie.
“Despair not, one of the thieves was spared; presume not, one of the thieves was not.”
– St Augustine
Calvary is a troubling film. Straight off the bat, the title is unapologetically bold. With a title like this, one expects a serious film, perhaps something like Passion of the Christ. The themes of the film match the gravity of the title, and fittingly, the theme of substitutionary atonement runs through this film from the first scene to the last.
The first scene opens onto a confessional, showing only Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson). A voice is giving his confession, recounting his experience of sexual abuse at the hands of a priest, long dead. As punishment, the man promises to kill Father James, a “good priest”, in one week. The film is then divided into seven chapters, one for each day of the week. Father James, the good priest, needs to set things in order before he faces his death.
But here’s where the film bothered me. It doesn’t really establish that Lavelle is actually that good. I know that the film probably wants to show that no one is perfect, and Father James does have his moments. We see him trying to talk a troubled young man out of joining the armed forces. “I think there’s too much talk about sins and not enough about virtues,” we hear him.
His truly redeeming scenes are those with his daughter Fiona, who has returned from London severely depressed, and to whom he shows real care and love. Fiona is one of the few characters apart from the Father that shows some complexity. But, then there are the scenes where he drinks like a fish before starting a pub brawl, implicitly condones hiring prostitutes, turns a blind eye to overtly criminal activities of his parishioners.
The parishioners themselves simply cannot be believed. I know Father James is a “hands on” type, but these guys hate him without reason. Christian virtues are completely lacking in them, which is troubling when you think about the Father’s role in encouraging these people on toward love and good deeds. This may be a deliberate move; they are almost archetypes. In a curiously meta conversation with the Father, the town GP (Aidan Gillen) remarks that playing a jaded doctor is boring. Then again this could be an attempt to make Father Lavelle look more saintly by comparison to his truly devilish parishioners.
Visually, the film is stunning. The natural landscape surrounding the small Irish village is used to good effect to reflect the film’s bleak themes. The beautiful scenery also give the audience a well-deserved moments of respite from the town’s unmitigating petty evil.
Child sexual abuse is the ostensible theme of the film, a brave decision for director John McDonagh. The spectre of the Church’s complicity in these appalling crimes haunts Father James throughout the film. No one ever seems to trust him, even though he is, by all appearances, a man of integrity. This ties back into the title: Lavelle is a good man taking the punishment for the bad. Even though this dynamic is complicated by Lavelle’s flaws, it’s thought provoking stuff. I don’t know enough about Irish Catholicism, but part of me thinks that priests are meant to take on the sufferings of their community in this way.
The final scene reveals who the potential murderer is. It’s anyones guess why the town butcher owns a handgun so large Clint Eastwood would think twice about owning it. Their final encounter on the beach is an interesting one, and one that asks questions directly of the audience. Lavelle (and the audience) is asked: “Did you cry when your dog died?” Yes. “Did you cry when you heard about all those children that were raped and had their lives ruined by people they trusted?” No. Why not? The film doesn’t give us an answer. Why don’t we cry when we hear of terrible things on the news? After Lavelle’s murder, the film ends with a montage of the parishioners continuing with their lives of sin, seemingly without hope of redemption now that Lavelle is dead.
It takes a good man to make a good priest, and a good priest can make a good difference to a community. But this leaves out the most important thing. It takes the power of God to truly change someone’s life, to actually bring about redemption. This film shows a lot of what happens when people try to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps”, and perhaps that is why the film is pervaded by a sense of hopelessness. The good news is that through Jesus’ death and resurrection at Calvary, we have a real hope of new life brought about by the power of God.