By John O'Brien, S.J.
2014. Director: John Michael McDonaugh, 102 min. Ireland/U.K.
Stars: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Marie-Josée Croze
Music: Patrick Cassidy
A mysterious man tells Father James (Brendan Gleeson) in the confessional that he was once abused by a priest and is going to kill him in one week’s time because he is a good priest. Although he continues to reach out to members of his parish in small-town Ireland, with their various scurrilous moral problems, and comfort Fiona (Kelly Reilly), his fragile daughter from an earlier marriage, the week goes by quickly, and he feels sinister and troubling forces closing in. He begins to wonder if he will have the strength to face his own personal Calvary.
Premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and the Berlin Film Festival. Brendan Gleeson won Best Actor at the British Independent Film awards in 2014, and the film also took most of the major awards at the Irish Film and Television awards. Calvary also appeared at the Toronto International Film Festival in August 2014.
Calvary, like its namesake mountain, is equal parts inspiration and desolation. The film manages to show both what a priest should be like and the horror of clerical abuse, the scandals that along with post-modern indifferentism, have left Ireland a rather bleak spiritual landscape. It is not an easy film to watch, and it will stick in your gut long after you have seen it. Only a great movie manages to do that. But why should we be interested in a movie like this?
Well it is Lent, and with Holy Week approaching, considering the spiritual state of the world, and perhaps the landscape of our own souls, is a worthwhile enterprise. Sometimes we look at stories that depict the grimness of depravity to appreciate the glory of the redemption. Indeed, at first glance there is little vindication in this film. But it is celebrated for a reason: a redemptive threads run subtly throughout this sordid conflict; the darkness highlights the presence-points of light. Let’s consider a few of them, and how they apply to our own lives.
First, Father James is a priest who, despite his personal flaws (and he is no Bing Crosby padre), genuinely cares for the people of his parish: he meets a cuckolded butcher who may have beaten his cheating wife, he confronts the wife and her so-called boyfriend, he rows out to the island of an American writer who needs company, and he puts up with the sneers and insults of the local bartender, a wisecracking male prostitute, an atheist doctor, and a pompous, degenerative rich man. This is a priest who, as Pope Francis has promoted, “has the smell of his sheep”, even if these sheep have an odor that is particularly ripe. If it’s not pastoral love that drives Father James, there is nothing else that could motivate a man to minister to this motley group. He is an icon of the Good Shepherd, the father of the prodigal son, even though the sons and daughters here remain largely unrepentant.
The level of cynicism on the part of the characters in the town is chilling. Although laced with occasional droplets of dark Irish humour, this fictional parish is more like a gathering in Dante’s Inferno, peopled with characters better suited to a dark and tragic morality play. If Father James is supposed to represent Christ to them, then he is the Christ of Pilate’s praetorium or of the via crucis, stumbling towards Golgotha amid the taunts and jeers of the crowd.
“Suffering,” the French Jesuit theologian Jean Danielou once wrote, “is the only meeting point between good and evil, and the only chance for the evil ones to be saves by the innocent.” The crosses that Father James bears in this story, will bear fruit, indeed are already bearing fruit, but only hinted at obliquely in the lives of the village people. He must follow his Master on the way of the cross in order to redeem the particularly lost. His relentless presence, sometimes admonishing, sometimes consoling, will eventually have its effect, even though he may not live to see it.
Yet he is not completely alone in this seemingly impossible pastoral quest. Despite the crassness of the people, there are two women who stand out as lights of consolation: his daughter, Fiona, who has not been emotionally well since the death of his wife several years before, but has sought him out from London. Their conversations throughout the week show a growing level of forgiveness and healing between father and daughter, a reconciliation that will have an important effect at the film’s end. The other is a Frenchwomen named Teresa (played by Canadian actress Marie-Josée Croze), who has just lost her husband in a car accident, yet has a strong enough faith to grieve with inner freedom. She gives one of the most poignant lines in the film, illustrating, perhaps, the key to her own interior peace:
Father James Lavelle: He was a good man, your husband?
Teresa: Yes. He was a good man. We had a very good life together. We loved each other very much. And now... he has gone. And that is not unfair. That is just what happened. But many people don't live good lives. They don't feel love. That is why it's unfair. I feel sorry for them.
Her attitude, at once one of grief and of fundamental gratefulness, allows her to see the world with eyes of compassion, so that her only sorrow is for the plight of the loveless. In that moment, she is unwittingly encouraging him to stay the long course of pastoral love.
Martyrdom is back in the news these days. After the recent execution of 21 Egyptian Christians by ISIS in Libya, a Coptic bishop told CNN that the only option for them was forgiveness. He said it in these words: “We don't forgive the act because the act is heinous. But we do forgive the killers from the depths of our hearts. Otherwise, we would become consumed by anger and hatred. It becomes a spiral of violence that has no place in this world.”
This is the cycle that forgiveness shatters. Father James is an innocent victim, and his would-be killer, although wrong to take vengeance in this way, is also the victim of an awful violation. He does not have to pay forward the violence; there are other roads to healing, so he is not absolved from what he does. Moreover, Father James does not know if he will die on Sunday. Like Christ in Gethsemane, he does not even want this “martyrdom”.
Perhaps the real word that Calvary offers us is that God does not hold back on pursuing us to the bitter end. It shows us how sacrifices may be required of us to restore things to their original wholeness. In this way desolation turns to inspiration. We see that some things can only be won back by grace – and no cheap grace at that. Then Calvary rises only within the larger horizon of resurrection, and becomes a living word of Mercy.
1) When have I experienced forgiveness in my life? Remember this event for a while, and be grateful.
2) Where have I seen sacrifice in my life turn around a sequence of sin or of violence? Consider this act, and be grateful.
3) Has God asked me to examine my own participation in cycles of sin? How might I be called to forgive someone, to sacrifice something, or to make an act of reparation that will help restore what has been wronged, healed what has been damaged?