My first impression of Calvary (2014, directed by John Michael McDonagh) was that it was deadpan religious noir. It's a film that attempts to reconcile the mission of the Catholic church with the wickedness done by that church's ministers. It falls into the category of noir because it's a crime film of sorts, one particularly concerned with a fall from grace. Its concern with states of grace is more (little "c") catholic than is normally the purview of noir, but its fall from grace is an equally dark descent. The punch, when it comes, lands with a brutalizing force even to a mocking unbeliever like me.
My second impression was that it was the cinematic equivalent of Hieronymus Bosch's "Christ Carrying the Cross," which has a central figure carrying the weight of the world through a crowd of leering grotesques. Bosch's painting has always had multiple interpretations, depending on the worldview of the critic. Is it deeply spiritual? Is it an irreligious mockery? I tend to think it's the former. Calvary provides a similar dichotomy, but it's more clearly an expression of spirituality. It's an argument for the necessity of the church in an increasingly secular and sinful world, and an indictment of the Catholic Church's utter failure in the face of its own mission.
The story here follows a week in the life of Father James, a priest in a rural Irish parish. At the outset of the film, one of his parishioners confesses to Father James that he's the victim of pedophile priests and since he can't strike out at the bad priests who serially abused him as a child, he was going to kill a "good" priest. He vows to kill Father James on the beach a week hence, giving the priest the chance to get his affairs in order. Father James knows who the man is, but chooses not to reveal it to his superiors. Instead, he goes about his duties as if nothing was amiss. His flock is complicated. The wife of the butcher is an adulterer and the butcher appears to have punched his wife for it. The wife's lover is an African immigrant who resents Father James as a representative of the "missionaries" who have so meddled in African affairs that their very mention suggests calamity. Father James's associate priest has no real religious conviction and is weak. The local business tycoon is drinking himself to death after the financial crash who wants to donate some money to The Church by way of penance, but who doesn't believe in the worth of anything but money. He amuses himself by pissing on the Holbein he owns because he can and taunts Father James about The Church's own obsession with money. The local policeman is keeping a rent boy who mocks Father James with provocative statements about what he does for fun. The local doctor is a hateful atheist who takes every opportunity to needle Father James's faith, the wife of a visiting tourist killed in an accident requires the comfort of religion, and Father James's own daughter returns from the big city after failing in a suicide attempt. This last provides a grim levity when Father James quips that she made the classic mistake and cut across rather than up the arm. Father James also ministers to a murderer when requested, imploring him to reveal the information that will lead the police to the bodies of his victims, to no avail. Meanwhile, the parish church burns and someone kills Father James's dog. He's a man under siege. And, eventually, he goes down to the beach to meet his fate...
There's a scene in the third act of Calvary that neatly summarizes the burden that Father James bears throughout the movie. He's walking on a back road and he comes across a little girl who is heading to the beach. He strikes up a conversation with the girl until her father's car comes screeching to a halt. He gets out and pulls his daughter into the car while giving Father James a deeply horrified look. Father James looks stricken by his regard. Such is the reputation of the Catholic priesthood in this day and age. Indeed, most of his parishioners mock him openly, and not just scabrous atheist Dr. Harte. The atheist and former Catholic in me has some sympathy for the scorn these people feel. I mean, let's face it, the Church has a LOT to answer for, and not just the pedophile priests who inspired the little girl's father to regard Father James with deep suspicion. For a "good" priest, one who actually cares about his vocation and the disposition of his flock, one who does his job as best he can, it's almost too much to bear.
It's not for nothing that this film is titled "Calvary." It's a passion play of sorts. Father James is a Christ figure, and each of the days the film counts down act as a stand in for the stations of the cross. The film heaps suffering on Father James until he meets his fate down on the beach. More, the film has twelve important supporting characters, representing disciples who abandon Father James as Christ. The film is more subtle than that, though. James's relationship with his daughter is nuanced, as is his relationship with the wife of the man who is killed. These are instances where the virtues of forgiveness--spiritual or secular, it makes no difference--are lovingly detailed. Beyond that: in his final confrontation with the man who has vowed to kill him, he's asked, "And when you read about what your fellow priests did to all those poor children down all those years, did you cry then?" he says "no." He has no legitimate answer. He's the embodiment of the Church's crimes in this instance and in some ways, he deserves the bullet. This film is nothing, if not conflicted. The juxtaposition of this scene with the montage that follows suggests ambiguous interpretations. The images are provocative: The money-worshiping nihilist, the adulterer and her lover, the violent Buddhist barkeeper, the asshole atheist, the fallen priest reading The God Delusion, these represent a world adrift without The Church. These are the mocking grotesques of Bosch's painting. The last images in the sequence subvert this interpretation: the grieving wife taking comfort from God, the daughter granting some kind of forgiveness (maybe) to her father's murderer. When I first watched the film, the meaning of the last images didn't register. I just saw the grotesques. John Michael McDonagh, the film's director, has mentioned that Calvary is influenced by the films of Robert Bresson, but it can't quite bring itself around to the same level of spiritual misanthropy, perhaps because it's organized around a character the likes of which was an anathema to Bresson. The film is also more aware of the power of grotesques and its own roots in art. The most baroque example of this is is the conversation Father James has with Chris O'Dowd's butcher, which takes place in a meat locker and calls to mind Rembrandt's painting of a flayed ox hung up for meat. A more subtle example is the painting on which Dylan Moran's rich man pisses. It's Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors. a painting famous for the anamorphic skull painted on the floor. This is one of the film's cleverest memento mori.
What keeps Calvary grounded as a human (humane?) drama is the central performance by Brendan Gleeson. While many of the film's other characters are sometimes straw men for the film's broader thematic concerns, Gleeson's Father James is fully realized thanks to the force of Gleeson's personality and his keen attention to details. He gives Father James both an inward gaze and an ingratiating engagement with the world at large. It's a remarkable turn for an actor who is often used as a physical presence more than as a complicated human being (more Mad-Eyed Mooney than Martin Cahill). Father James is a complicated man, one who is aware of the both the role of The Church and it's fading position in the world. There's a weary resignation to the way he goes about his duties in the last week of his life, but a deep concern for his fellow man and a deep self-hatred towards his own limitations. More, Gleeson brings to the role a movie-star charisma that I didn't even know he had.
I often tell people that I don't respond well to spiritual films, but, strictly speaking, that's not true*. While I don't really care for films that act as devotionals, I do respond to films that examine and question faith, particularly those that examine a fall of man from a state of grace or, better still, a fall of faith itself. I think such films can provide great drama. The fact that I'm an ex-Catholic provides me with a connection with Calvary. I was never abused by priests, mind you. The priests I knew were generally the "good" priests among whom Father James is counted by the film, but that didn't stop my disillusion with The Church from taking root at a young age. It has a lot to answer for. In the piece I wrote about Philomena a couple of years ago, I mentioned that I'd seen an article asking the rhetorical question of whether that film was anti-Catholic and the answer I suggested was that it wasn't anti-Catholic enough. I think Calvary gets this right. It takes Catholicism to task, but it doesn't do this in a way that's obviously anti-Catholic. You could mistake the film for Catholic propaganda if you squint at it right. But I don't think that it is. And it carries a wallop as drama.
*the simple fact of the matter is that being an atheist doesn't mean I don't "get" religious art as art. I don't need to believe in the Greek gods or Jehovah or Odin to groove on the stories of mythology. And if being atheist means I don't get to listen to Sam Cooke or Johnny Cash...well, fuck that noise.
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