Liam Mac Uaid reviews Calvary.
In his book Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate Terry Eagleton took up the cudgels against the crass atheism of Richard Dawkins and acknowledged his personal debt to Catholicism. He made the obvious, and generally overlooked, point that most of the time most people had positive experiences with most priests. In John Michael McDonagh’s new film Calvary we are offered a perspective on how the revelations about widespread clerical abuse of children and the vulnerable have changed Ireland’s relationship with the Catholic Church.
Brendan Gleeson’s Father James is just the sort of priest Eagleton had in mind. He is compassionate, intelligent, wise and funny. He has the misfortune to minister to a Sligo parish which seems to be entirely comprised of the sorts of grotesque caricatures to be found in the TV series Father Ted. He is the only sensible, likeable person in the county. And what a beautiful county! Gleeson’s wonderful performance is matched only by the beauty of the landscape. The coastline and mountains are used to suggest the triviality and transience of the parishoners’ concerns while offering the possibility of a contemplative spirituality.
Most of the film is taken up with Father James’ Gethsemane, his period of anguished waiting hoping that his god will spare him from death. A parishioner has told him in confession that as retribution for the childhood abuse he suffered at the hands of a priest he will kill James. The abuser is dead and he reasons that killing a good priest will have more shock value. Just as Christ knew when he was to die, Father James is told that he has one week to set his affairs in order.
That’s where the unreality starts. It’s hard to accept that his senior manager, in this case the bishop, would simply mimic Pontius Pilate and wash his hands of the matter. It’s hard too to see much realism to the unrelenting hostility Father James gets from all his parishioners. Like Christ he is friends with the sinners, but he has attracted no disciples. He’s a man who is completely alone in his community. While deference to the Church as an institution is pretty much dead in modern Ireland, individuals priests are still often the object of considerable admiration. When Father Matt Wallace, a priest in one of the toughest parishes in Belfast, committed suicide last year there was genuine and widespread grief. The priests who conduct weddings and funerals are still part of the fabric of families’ lives, even if little heed is paid to their doctrines. None of this is hinted at in the film.
The title tells you how it ends. Calvary is where Christ was crucified. You could stretch the point and hint that there is a resurrection too. Father James suggests that forgiveness is the greatest virtue and in the closing scene it’s offered to someone who is bewildered by it.
There is a film to be made about modern Ireland’s relationship to Catholicism, but this isn’t it. The collection of oddballs and characters who are little more than representatives of types doesn’t create a strong enough backdrop to explore the subject in a real way. However, Brendan Gleeson is outstanding and the film has a real emotional power throughout. The woman who was sitting beside me certainly thought so as she was in tears at the end.