An altar in the ruins of a church

The opening scene in John Michael McDonagh’s stunning Calvary takes place in a confessional. Fr. James’ face is illuminated, though barely, in deep orange tones. The confessor’s face is out of frame, but his words leap out of the dark: “I’m going to murder you one week from today.” A genuine confession, I suppose, though the confessional booth is typically reserved for sins already committed. That means Calvary isn’t a whodunit, exactly, but more of a who’s-about-to-do-it, with some bleak farcical elements thrown in, too. It’s also a theologically rich portrait of the relationship between a good man placed in impossible circumstances by his parish and the history of his church.

McDonagh has placed Calvary amidst some astonishing Irish countryside. Weather-beaten granite hills burst from rolling green meadows, the surf crashes against peculiar rock formations on the shore, and the camera pans across vast vistas. The whole place is windswept, with the sort of beauty best beheld from afar. You get the sense that at any moment a gale will whip in from the sea and scrape the whole place clean.

At the center of this threatening beauty is a small parish, presided over by Father James, who’s played with a sturdy imperturbability by Brendan Gleeson. For the most part, anyway. The camera loves his face, too, which isn’t a surprise, since it’s every bit as craggy and weathered as the Irish countryside. He’s a second-career country priest who entered the priesthood after his wife passed away. He’s a recovering alcoholic, and estranged from his daughter. He wears the old-style cassock, the severe black one with the big buttons down the front, though that’s not indicative of his temperament at all. He’s long-suffering and attentive to his flock, never hectoring them or offering trite consolations, and he maintains a faithful presence in their lives, though it doesn’t seem that they’re particularly interested in his presence.

And what a miserable, loathsome flock they are. There’s the cynical atheist doctor, and the lecherous auto mechanic. An abusive husband and the millionaire with the stolen fortune. Characters that function as stand-ins for the classic cardinal sins: sloth, lust, wrath, greed, and, well, you know the rest. They spend most of their time scoffing at Fr. James – some critics find them to be darkly funny – but for the most part, they sound resentful and cynical.

That cynicism may be earned, however. Calvary is set amidst the wreckage of the Irish Catholic church, still reeling from the sexual abuse scandals, and its plot is anchored around the weight of that transgression. Our would-be murderer confesses to Fr. James that he was victimized as a boy, and plans to murder Fr. James as payback. Not because Fr. James is the offender; in fact, the guilty priest died years ago. Instead, the would-be murderer thinks it would rock the church more to see an innocent pay the price for the sins of a guilty man.

An innocent man who pays the cost for his fellows’ sins. That's a familiar tale for Christians – a grim yet hopeful, harrowing yet faith-affirming one. Calvary echoes that poignantly, and surprisingly, too. I’ll confess I approached the film with some trepidation, expecting it to be a purgative for all the anger and pain that the sexual abuse scandal has sown. That’d be a really easy film to make; maybe even a justified one. It’s easy to have sympathy for those who’ve witnessed the carnage of sexual abuse and decided to just chuck it all.

But Calvary is not that kind of film. It is indeed coarse and grim, though there are streams of mercy and goodness in the harsh Irish landscape, too: the simple yet profound fidelity of a shepherd tending his wayward flock, the possibility of reconciliation between a father and his daughter, and a steady, quiet witness to the beautiful core of the Gospel, so often shrouded by the Church. As Fr. James moves through the week towards his own Calvary, we may realize that we all have some things to which we can die: our self-justification, and the prestige of our institutions, for starters. Calvary reminds us that though the way ahead may look dark, forgiveness, faith and love are indelible, and they remain in the world like a stone altar standing in the ruins of a church.

  • Brian Is CC’s Review Editor and a CRC chaplain at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

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