Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 40 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 5; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating: (0-5): 5
…Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
Writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s film, set in the fishing village of Easkey in County Sligo, Ireland, should have been released a week or two before Easter because it so resembles the last week in the life of Jesus. Thus its appropriate title, one of the names of the hill on which Jesus was crucified. The film’s Father James Lavelle, like Jesus, is an innocent man slated to die for the guilty. From the title, we know right away we are in for some serious viewing, introduced by the words of Saint Augustine that appear on the screen: “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.”
With the widespread abuse of boys by Irish priests as its dark backdrop, the film shows that there is a price to be paid for such violation of the innocents by those cloaked with the authority to speak for God. In the opening scene, Father James (Brendan Gleeson) sits in the darkness of the confessional booth as a man tells him that he was abused during his service as an altar boy for five years by a priest. That priest has died, so the man says the church will pay for the crime. “There’s no point in killing a bad priest,” he says matter of factly. “I’m going to kill you because you’re innocent.” He tells the priest he has a week to put his affairs in order before dying. He is to meet him on the beach the next Sunday.
Among those affairs not in order is Father James’ relationship with his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), born before James became a priest. She arrives in town with her own troubles, having recently attempted suicide. She pours her heart out to him about her feeling of being abandoned—first by her mother during her long illness, and then, after her mother’s death, by him because he was dealing with his vocation.
Father James could have left town to save his life, but he is a priest, similar to the whiskey priest in Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory. Like that cleric, he also has a drinking problem that he has controlled, but as the week goes on, he turns to the bottle more and more. His parishioners are a hard lot that would try the soul of any pastor, even in ordinary times. Shown at times with touches of dark humor, they are:
- The town butcher Jack (Chris O ‘Dowd), whose wife Veronica (Orla O’ Rourke) has betrayed him sexually;
- Veronica who is unrepentant, flaunting her illicit relationship with her lover;
- Simon, Veronica’s West African lover (Isaach De Bankole), who beats her and is hostile to the priest when he comes calling;
- Police Inspector Stanton (Gary Lydon) who seeks sex with a male prostitute;
- Milo Herlihy (Killian Scott), a sexually deprived young man who talks about joining the army so he can legally vent his violent feelings;
- Frank Harte a cynical doctor (Aidan Gillen) who is a militant atheist filled with contempt for priest and church;
- Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), both the richest and most arrogant man in town, yet despairing because his wife and children have left him;
- An elderly American writer (M. Emmet Walsh) who asks the priest to get him a gun so that when the time comes, he can leave the world on his terms;
- Teresa (Marie-Josee Croze), the French tourist whom Father James meets at the hospital when he is called to give the last rites to her husband, fatally injured in an auto accident.
Father James seems to have good relationships with just the last two of the above. He has an assistant priest, Father Leary (Dennis Wilmot), but he is so ill suited for the priesthood that he is more of a liability than a help. (In their last exchange Fr. James tells him that he has no integrity, after which the man packs up and leaves.) Fr. James does talk with his bishop (David McSavage), even revealing that he thinks he knows who his prospective killer is, but he will not divulge the name. The bishop listens, but can offer no further help. Probably the most comfort is his old faithful dog who frequently accompanies him.
The days go by, and we wonder which of the motley crew of people is the man in the confessional booth. The counting down of days is similar in its effect to the countdown of hours in High Noon. The priest in reconciling with his daughter does not let on that he is under a death threat. He even visits a convicted child killer in prison. He drinks, misuses the gun that he has procured for the writer, and is beaten up (by the bar tender) for his offense of shooting up the bar.
Very aware of the shortcomings of the villagers, an of himself, Father James observes, “There’s too much talk about sins and not enough talk about virtues.”
Calvary resembles Robert Bresson’s 1951 masterpiece Diary of a Country Priest as re-imagined by Quentin Tarentino. Except for his mended relationship with Fionna and his genuine comforting of the grieving French widow, Father James seems to have little effect, very much like the young priest in Robert Bresson’s film. Father James is far tougher than Bresson’s “little priest,” but even Father James’s faith gives way for a moment when he comes upon the body of his dog, its throat cruelly slashed. Equally debilitating to his spirit is the late night burning of his church, seemingly a signal from his enemy that last Sunday’s words in the confessional were not an idle threat.
Indeed, the director said publicly that his new film is basically Bresson’s film “with a few gags thrown in.” There is dark humor, but no sentimentality, no touch of a Barry Fitzgerald or Bing Crosby in this stark drama. The ending is powerful, with a hint of forgiveness—though in that last scene there are no words, just two people looking at one another. I won’t reveal more, so as not to spoil the surprise, but it is a wonderful way to conclude such a dark story.
Brendan Gleeson has turned in many fine performances, but as the stoic priest he has reached the pinnacle of his career. Each one of the supporting actors is also perfect, given that some of them have little screen time. Most of their characters have been so buffeted about by life and their failings and lusts that they have little faith left. Indeed, several are very hostile to the church and its representative, partly perhaps because of the cruel treatment of boys by so many priests who were never punished for their abominations, but more so because they have found no solace for their pain in the church’s message and sacraments. Nonetheless their priest stays with them until the very end.
One scene that demonstrates the poisonous atmosphere that the Catholic Church’s mishandling of the child abuse scandal has wrought: Father James is strolling on a country road when he comes upon a little girl. Falling in with her shorter stride, he engages in a friendly conversation. Suddenly a car roars up, screeches to a stop, and the angry father orders the girl to get in. As he pulls away he yells at the priest to stay away from his daughter.
Look for this to be at or near the top of Visual Parables’ “Top Ten Films” list early next year. It is the kind of film that led me almost 25 years ago to name this publication “Visual Parables.”
This review with a set of 10 discussion questions will be in the September 2014 Visual Parables.