Although I’ve seen several superb films this year – Only Lovers Left Alive, Frank, A Field in England, Under the Skin, and The Double to name a few – only one has compelled me to sit down and write.
John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary is that rarest of things in the modern multiplex: a film born out of sorrow and rage. The last film of its kind was also the overlooked best film of its year: 2012’s Killing Them Softly. But Andrew Dominik’s film reveled in the rage a little bit more. It chewed up its targets and spat them right into your tub of popcorn like a sneering punk rock anti-crooner. Calvary, on the other hand, is a banshee cry of despair towards its targets, many of whom will never see justice for the appalling crimes they committed. Both films will find their audiences.
I first saw Calvary at one of the few cinemas in the country willing to show it. John Michael McDonagh is the older brother of Martin, the renowned playwright who previously made his mark in world cinema with the scabrous, melancholic black comedy In Bruges. John’s previous film, his debut feature The Guard, was often riotously funny but never managed to rise above its flippant tone. It doesn’t linger on the palate for too long after the credits roll. I was expecting a similar experience after Calvary. But as the credits rolled, I could barely stand up. I was shaken. Not one single film this year has shaken me this year. This should be celebrated.
Calvary’s failure to ignite the arthouse box office or fight its corner in the awards season battle for glory may, in part, be down to poor marketing. The trailers and posters suggest a wry whodunit of a film. Indeed, it begins with an as-yet-unidentified member of the parish informing Father James (the towering Brendan Gleeson) that he will be killed on the following Sunday. The fact that Father James is considered “a good priest” is the point. This darkly comic set-up has been sold to us as the kind of misanthropic punchline we’d expect from the Coen Brothers.
But Calvary is not a whodunit. Father James knows exactly who made the threat from the beginning. As he meets with one parishioner after another – including the kind of pathetic, drunken banker (Dylan Moran) responsible for Ireland’s economic downturn – he isn’t looking for clues. He is maintaining his role as the community shepherd. Priests are supposed to tend their flock, right? Unfortunately, this community no longer needs a shepherd. They’ll come to Father James seeking absolution for their sins but they aren’t interested in leading better lives. Most of them don’t appear to believe in God at all—and yet they still attend mass every Sunday.
The primary source of Calvary’s rage comes from the sick and vile child abuse scandal stemming from the Catholic Church as well as the subsequent cover-up, which included former Pope and Palpatine lookalike Joseph Ratzinger. But this anger is also directed at those fundamentally good priests who did nothing while child after child was raped for decades, and that’s where Father James comes in. If he were unlikable or indeed if he had abused children, the threat of murder would be easier for us to swallow. Instead, the goodness of Father James is the cross he has to bear. This town forces him to act as the scapegoat for all the many sins of the Church.
In one of the film’s most compelling strands, Father James receives a visit from his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly.) It is revealed early on that James took his vows after his wife passed away. Fiona comes to him now as a priest after she attempted suicide–the bandages are still fresh. Fiona does not need a shepherd; she needs her father. The “good priest” and the “good father” are one in the same. He means no harm to anyone but his absence to those in their time of need leaves an open wound crying out for healing. His parish may not think they need him but Fiona remains lost and abandoned. So his quest is not of salvation or redemption but of forgiveness—of his parish, of his church, of his daughter, of his would-be killer, and of himself most of all.
McDonagh’s camera always seems to look at Father James from a distance. The vast, open spaces of Ireland’s lush landscape surround this character with grim indifference. Irish Catholicism has been in a steep decline for at least fifteen years. The child abuse scandal is but one of many reasons for the Irish turning their backs on religion en masse. But Father James does not relent. “I think there’s too much talk about sins and not enough about virtues,” James remarks to Fiona in one of the film’s final moments. “I think forgiveness has been highly underrated.” Still, life will go on regardless of Father James just like it will go on after Catholicism dies. Its passing will not come quickly, but even if it does, that empty landscape will not care.
I realize I am describing an almighty dirge of a film, but Calvary maintains the jet-black humor we’ve come to expect from the McDonaghs’ past works. In what other film about faith and forgiveness would you hear a reference to felching, for instance? I cannot conceive of an American film about a “good priest” in which the man of the cloth advises a sexually frustrated sociopath to look into pornography instead of joining the military. This brand of dark humor may not be to everyone’s taste, but those of you who understand the necessity of laughter in the face of life’s bleakest moments will likely respond with anxious but favorable laughter.
The blend of solemn austerity and sardonic absurdity that is Calvary was perhaps too potent either for Hollywood’s awards season glitterati or the irony-chewing, twee-imbibing hipsters of New York and Los Angeles who failed to crown this remarkable work a sleeper hit. Films aren’t allowed to tackle complex moral issues in today’s franchise-driven Hollywood, and when they are, the content is diluted into safe and comforting narratives. When you see Calvary, consider its startling opening line–your reaction may determine whether you embrace the film. Just remember what Pablo Picasso once said: “Good taste is the enemy of great art.”
Great art always has its due.