“What intrigued me was the idea of how difficult it must be to uphold a sense of truth and goodness when you’re being vilified. We’re in a very strange time now where it’s difficult for people to believe in heroes any more – it’s kind of revolutionary now to think of goodness as an aspiration, but I believe we’re swimming against the tide with Calvary. The story is about the notion of goodness.”
— Brendan Gleeson
John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary is not a great film: its plot requires more than a little credulity, and its stabs at humor miss more often than not. It is, however, an important film — one, I daresay, that will remain with its audience long after they view it. With a nod to Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953), Calvary begins in a confessional in a small church in the West of Ireland (probably County Sligo, given the lurking presence of Benbulbin). An unidentified parishioner confesses to Father James Lavelle (Gleeson) that, as a young boy, he was horrifically abused by a Catholic priest and that he wants to take the life of Fr. James as recompense. He reasons that the depth of his hurt and vitriol will be clearer if he murders a good priest rather than a bad one. For his act is as symbolic as it is personal: he does not want to simply kill Fr. James but the very idea of a priesthood — that is to say, of a group of persons who mediate the will of a loving God.
Fr. James is given a week to get his affairs in order, and so the film unfolds as a kind of Passion Week, chronicling each day of the priest’s slow but certain ascent up his own Calvary — a term that references Golgotha (“place of the skull”), rendered Calvariæ Locus in Latin, the hill on which Jesus died. What we see is an unflinching look at the challenges of being a priest today: some of Fr. James’ flock admire his commitment to the Gospel but openly ignore his counsel; some prefer to mock his faith, noting the quaintness of believing in God amid the brutality of the universe; some distrust him, wondering if his kindly persona is nothing but a cover for nefarious motives; still others actively disdain both him and his office and are unafraid to express their feelings with violence. And this is to say nothing of his fellow clergy, who either want to avoid contact with the laity or who are beginning to explore popular skepticism (one priest is seen perusing Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion). Of course, these responses to Fr. James are also responses to God. As Pope Benedict XVI once wrote, “[A priest] represents Jesus, who is never absent in the Church,” and hence, insofar as his office is concerned, a priest “never acts in the name of someone absent, but in the person of the Risen Christ.”
But this task, Calvary suggests, is precisely what’s at issue. In re-presenting the person of Jesus, Fr. James is offensive to others, whether in his presumed arrogance (in claiming to mediate on behalf of God) or in his palpable lowliness (in doing so in such humble fashion, without wealth or honor). Indeed, one cannot see the good he is seeking — to comfort and to encourage the afflicted — without passing through the crucible of offense. Within the context of the film, one such person is Fiona (Kelly Reilly), Fr. James’ daughter, who has struggled to accept his priestly calling after the death of his wife and her mother. In particular, Fiona resents the fact that, rather than focus on the healing needed in his own life and family, her father has chosen to minister to a parish of ingrates and misanthropes. Towards the end of the film, however, the pair arrive at an understanding: both of them, albeit in different ways, have spent far too much time worrying about what’s wrong than doing what’s right. As Fr. James puts it, “[F]orgiveness has been highly underrated,” not just in his relationship with Fiona, but in the Church’s ministry and its relation to the world — even a world as bellicose as this one.
It is this wisdom that gives Fr. James the strength to complete his passion and to meet his would-be killer — a conclusion that is no less gripping despite its inevitability. But is Fr. James’ witness in vain? McDonagh does not answer this question directly and perhaps for good reason. In the wake of the abuse scandal in Ireland, America, and elsewhere, there are no straightforward answers. What Calvary does suggest, however, is that the Church can only regain its footing through a commitment to goodness — a commitment that refuses to waiver in the face of scorn and suffering. It’s a cutting message, but not a hopeless one. Like its namesake, Calvary is not so much about death (death of the good, death of the Church, death of God) as about what comes after death. Life.