Ooooo…. Dont do film all that often, but I’m not sure that enough has been said about “Calvary”. This is the latest from John Michael McDonagh and it doesn’t disappoint. I’m not entirely sure about what he was trying to convey but I can certainly state where I think the film has its motives and what I took away from it.
Here we have a village priest “James” played by Brendan Gleeson who takes great care over his parish and you get a real feeling that he actually truly cares about these people and their lives, up to and possibly including the point of self sacrifice.
It is not a spoiler to state that from the outset of this story he is faced with an immediate and disturbing threat. He is given 7 days to get his affairs in order, so that the person on the other side of the confessional can murder him.
We are then treated to a series of vignettes, some of which are drawn in more detail than others and each of which could be the subject of a whole other film, but the narrative must move on. What appears to me to be universal across these stories is a deep sense of selfish desire with scant regard for anyone else. We are thrown this desolate, disconsolate and distressed group of very isolated individuals supposedly living in community but doing nothing of the sort. Out of this we know that one such person is so disturbed and distressed that they are destined to commit murder.
The passage where James meets a serial killer in Jail is particularly memorable, if only for the fact that the killer is played by his son Domhnall Gleeson. This passage is short but brilliantly well acted. It also acts as a counterpoint – the murderer here is isolated by his circumstance but his position is way more honest than any of the other characters we meet. He does not lie and in this we can at least feel a degree of comfort
In the final act there is much anger, but the anger has a righteous justice about it. Some might argue that the character merely uses his past as an excuse and that no-one could possibly feel quite that level of anger at such an injustice, but I would suggest that the severe and indescribable toxic shame invoked by sexual abuse is a perfectly understandable position from which such an act could arise.
It is a revenge narrative but one with a very peculiar twist. The priest in this case is completely innocent and completely loving. His love for the people is unconditional and it is in this love that we can truly see how Christ’s love is supposed to be displayed. He is a “scapegoat” in the very true meaning of the word. His story parallels that of Christ and I didn’t really get enough time to think it through carefully enough but felt that there was an underlying “Passion play” in this narrative. In the end there is a “Calvary” and it is up to us how we feel at that point.
I was moved by the closing scenes and humbled by the acts of his daughter. The final closing theme is best left to the film itself but would be truly hard to understand for many. I would refer you to the excellent book by Brian Zahnd: “Unconditional” for a way to reconcile that one.
For me, this film is right up there with “Gospel of Us” as a sidelong look at faith, love, trust and honesty and what they truly mean for a society which has largely dropped values in favour of a vacuous self indulgence.
A word on humour:
This film has a witty and wry dialogue. It does not mean it is laugh out loud. This is important, as the majority of the filmgoers seemed to treat it as some form of extended episode of Father Ted – I despair.