If you’ve seen the trailer or read a review of Calvary, you may get the impression that the movie is a mystery set in a quaint Irish village. If you’ve read interviews with the director or cast, you may get the impression that the movie’s deeper message has something to do with the sex abuse scandal that has plagued the Catholic Church.
Many non-Catholics and lapsed Catholics cannot get enough of the sex abuse scandal, even though the rates of abuse are reportedly much higher in many (US) public schools. Reports of abuse conducted outside of the Church are often cast off with a shrug, and not met with screams that public education must be reformed and calls that teachers must be married. It is not my intention to minimize the claims of those who have been injured and emotionally hurt by sex abuse, but to plead for a degree of perspective, especially from the media who report on such matters. Abuse of this nature is reprehensible and criminal.
The movie’s name, Calvary, suggests that there will be a sacrifice of an innocent. Calvary, of course, is the spot where Jesus was crucified, but to many Christians, “Calvary” is amplified to mean the crucifixion itself. “The road to Calvary” is not necessarily the geographic route that Jesus walked dragging his cross, but encompasses the events leading up to the crucifixion. The potential of this imagery is powerful, and is not mined to the fullest extent by writer/director John Michael McDonagh.
The movie has a promising beginning with an epigraph from St. Augustine:
Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved.
Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.
For the uninitiated, when Christ hung on the cross, there were two criminals, commonly believed to be thieves, who were crucified at the same time, one on his right and the other on his left. One of them taunted Jesus, and dared him to “save yourself and us” (Luke 23:39). The second admonished the first by saying: “‘Don’t you fear God…since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom'” (Luke 23:40-42). Jesus turns to the second criminal and answers, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.'” (Luke 23:44).
St. Augustine directs our attention to the first thief who, by echoing the jeers of the Roman soldiers and the elders, damned his soul to perdition. Even as life dripped from his body, he wanted to be in the cool crowd and to be accepted by his tormentors.
If St. Augustine’s remark is meant to be foreshadowing, it is a confused foreshadowing. While nearly every sin of man is exposed during the film, no thievery has been confessed (accusations made, maybe, but no facts). Perhaps “thief” is meant to be “sinner” and that is a thread that can be followed for a little bit, before it unravels. It cannot be said with any confidence that anyone in the movie was or will be saved, and perhaps they all were or will be damned.
The movie opens in the confessional where the priest is warned that he’ll be killed on the following Sunday, and the suggestion is made that maybe he should get his “house in order”. The “penitent” tells the Father James (played by Brendan Gleeson) in startling graphic terms that he had been harmed by a priest in his youth and childhood and reasons that that the priest must pay, even if he is not personally guilty of sodomy.
The appointment for murder on Sunday is a little perplexing, and if the priest were meant to be a Christ figure, one may be inclined to think that he would meet his doom on the Friday before.
Characters and their assorted sins float in and out of the picture. With few exceptions, their lives neither seem intertwined nor dependent on one another. The priest’s daughter (legitimate daughter; born in marriage before he was widowed and took up his vocation), Fiona, enters, recovering from a failed suicide attempt. At one point, in the confessional, she asks her father if suicide is a sin, and he says that he had to give the matter some thought. He didn’t say that he was going to consult the Magisterium, but the viewer is led to believe that the fruit of the priest’s own thought would be able to provide the answer.
Inexplicably, Father James is called on to visit a serial killer/cannibal, who seems neither penitent nor contrite. It seems that he called for the priest more or less for his own amusement, to lessen the tedium of confinement. The murderer snivels, “God made me.” Modern audiences can fill in what is unspoken: God made me; ergo, He must accept and celebrate all that I do.
There is a sexually frustrated young man to whom Father James suggests pornography as a means of relieving his tension. The young man has already availed himself of the outlet, and is on to transsexuals. Father suggests that be might try his hand in Dublin, where the lasses may be more agreeable. The young man thinks that his own salvation will be to enter the military, which causes a problem for the priest: “The commandment, ‘thou shalt not kill’ doesn’t have an asterisk.” “What about self-defense?” asks the young man. “That’s a tricky one, all right,” says the priest.
There is the town floozy, to put it nicely, who is married to the butcher but who is sleeping with the mechanic (among others, so it seems) but all three march up to receive the host, and it is all okay. God made them, too.
There is the elderly writer that Father visits and brings food and drink. He requests a gun from the priest, to help him off this mortal coil, should the need arise. Father does manage to procure a gun from Inspector Stanton, but first we have to be introduced to his unstable gay lover who slyly suggests that he also passes time with the bishop.
This gun, unlike Chekhov’s, is tossed off a cliff and is rendered useless—that is, after the priest takes in too much beer and whiskey and shoots up the pub. This is after a quite moment when the proprietor confidentially tells him that he is facing foreclosure.
The nearest thing to the thief is the rich man, played by Dylan Moran (Black Books). He fears that charges will be brought against him for financial irregularities. His family has already left him, and it is just himself rambling around in his old house, where he is free to urinate on masterworks of art. It is a small mercy that the rich man does not gallop in with his checkbook to save the day for the pub owner or that the town does not band together to hold a raffle and a bake sale to save their favorite watering hole.
There is tourist who is mortally injured in a traffic accident and Father is called in to give last rites. The widow, who survived, is perhaps the most faithful and godly character in the movie, but she is only on screen for a few minutes. She is heartbroken, but she will survive. Father asks her to pray with him, and he starts, “Hail Mary, Full of Grace…” This may be an error, as I don’t know if the intention was to pray the rosary, which usually begins with the Apostles’ Creed.
After his bad night at the pub, the priest (inexplicably) heads to Dublin under the soothing tones of Roger Whittaker. We see him in the airport where he encounters the widow again, and we see a worker lean on her husband’s casket as easily as he would lean across the bar. Apart from showing the lack of reverence for the dead, it is not clear why the priest went to Dublin.
The movie is crisscrossed with other characters and events that may or may not be related to the denouement, and the viewer is left with a mystery. The movie is billed as a “black comedy”. There are light moments, and there are genuine comedians playing dramatic roles, such as Chris O’Dowd and Mr. Moran; however, “comedy” may be an overstatement.
In an interview with the San Diego Reader, writer/director John Michael McDonagh said:
(Having been married) I think that the priest is more able to comment with authority on moral issues. He’s somebody who has lived a full life. If he’s, say, mediating between a warring couple, he can actually speak about marriage and sex and everything else. I mean, most priests obviously can’t, and yet they do. Why have they got that authority to talk about something they don’t know anything about? Father James has it. But also, he struggled with alcoholism. So, he’s suffered, and he’s battled, and he’s not an entirely saintlike person. But he’s trying to be…
The writer/director has had some religious education when he was younger, but there are some gaps in that he doesn’t quite grasp the teachings of the Church or fully appreciate the gifts of scripture and tradition. A priest does not have to have the misery or joy of married life to intervene in a troubled marriage. In fact, even with Father James’s vast experience with married life, he was unable to bring peace to the butcher’s difficult marriage.
Perhaps it was a tricky one, all right.