I’ve been musing on John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary off and on for fair amount of this week.
It’s a film that’s not really like anything else, even McDonagh’s previous film, The Guard, although it shares a lead actor and a certain, deeply black, humour. It’s a deeper, more reflective piece, taking on a particular, incredibly painful issue, through a particular theological moment - that being paedophilia and abuse in the Catholic Church, and the sacrifice and redemption of Calvary.
(The plot synopsis being that, one day, in confessional, a man comes and tells Father James that he was abused as a child by a priest, and that he plans to kill Father James the following Sunday - not because he is guilty, but because he is innocent of the act - one thing, I think the film suggests, is that he not completely innocent, because of association).
It’s also flawed - more than The Guard - though that’s hardly surprising, given that there’s far more potential for flaws from the very fact of its ambition. There is a certain amount of archetyping, and a certain amount of meaningful dialogue (you know, that deeply quotable stuff) - and I suspect that without Brendan Gleeson’s presence, towering, humane and utterly believable, it might all fall apart.
In many ways, I’m less interested, (here), in whether this ‘works’ as a plot, or as an exploration of the issue at hand in a way that is positive, potentially cathartic. I’m not disinterested - it’s just that I know very little about both the issue and events, and the theology, especially in Catholic doctrine, so I can’t comment on it well. I would like to know more, if anyone can point me at any thoughts on it.
So - what has lingered with me about Calvary? What did I like? What has intrigued?
I’m interested in the way the film shows Father James interacting with his flock. Given a week to ‘put his affairs in order’, he spends a certain amount of it sorting out his relationship with his daughter, and much of the rest tending to his parish.
I like that it’s set in a small, rural area, not a city. The small, local thing matters, I think, because if you live somewhere like Sligo, where the film is set (or in much of rural England), because these aren’t places where you get a wide choice of church, so your how your local priest does things is what the church is - what Christianity is - who Christ is - to you. People who live in places like London and have a choice not only of denomination, but within a denomination are hugely privileged. I suspect that it is also something that burdens an established church more than a non-established church (do we still call them non-conformist?), with a pastoral responsibility for all of the inhabitants of its parish, regardless of how they’d profess their faith (or lack of it). There is no one outside of Father James’ remit in this community, no one has no connection with the church or can be dropped because they’re covered somewhere else or want to be dropped.
I find it interesting, because, given the tendency of many Christians much of the time - especially in public - to be concerned with whether or not people professing the Christian faith are ‘doing it right’ and therefore in or out of the club (from complex theological debates over heaven and hell, to what marriage is, to David Cameron’s use of the world evangelical, right up to judging people for spending more time arguing publicly about who is in and who is out rather than building loving relationships with people, we’re pretty much all guilty of doing this at some level - I’m doing it right now, by way of judging an artistic representation of it - and how Christians do the whole, ‘in the world, not of the world’ thing, the local priest (or the Vicar, if you’re watching Rev) is doing it professionally and trying to make it work, in this kind of context.
So I liked that it was a film about the church that is less concerned with what the priest believes than how he believes it.
Father James, Gleeson’s character, is innocent, but he is not an innocent. He’s a moralist, and a realist. He cares about Jack and Veronica and their marriage, but he also recognises that it might do better and be happier if they’re not faithful to each other, and so while he makes clear that it’s not ideal, he also doesn’t condemn - and in doing so he keeps them in a relationship with God and the church, which the alternative might not have done. But - he has lines - seen most absolutely in his visit to the prison, to see the young man imprisoned for murder and cannibalism - where he absolutely, furiously rejects the young man’s attempts to rationalise the crime.
Some of the times he gets it right, and some of the times he gets it wrong, but then he gets up and tries again, in a way that his colleague cannot manage.
I think that’s why he gets up and goes to the beach, at the end. And I think it’s why the film works more than it doesn’t work, in terms of its Calvary-moment. Father James might not be perfect, but he is good, and it felt, to me at least, like there is a kind of emotional-chemical reaction in the denouement that may allow for a transformation, and an Easter-morning is moment in the very final scene.