“I was seven years old when I first tasted semen.”
Thus begins Calvary, and thus immediately does it kill any expectations that the second film of John Michael McDonagh’s self proclaimed “glorified suicide trilogy” will be in the same vein as comedic gem The Guard. That was a black comedy that epitomised Ireland to an extent that was almost faultless: this, as that opening line attests, is a far darker tale, with humour at a premium (seriously, seeing people dub this a “comedy” in reviews seems bizarre to me having watched the film). Can this director and his leading man strike gold twice in a row?
An anonymous parishioner, who suffered clerical abuse as a child and seeks vengeance against the Catholic Church, informs Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson), a good priest being made to substitute for a bad one, that he will murder him in seven days. In the intervening time, this recovering alcoholic clergyman investigates and tries to see to the needs of his rural west Ireland flock, from flippant butchers (Chris O’Dowd), amoral elites (Dylan Moran), snarky atheists (Aidan Gillian), his suicidal daughter (Kelly Reilly) and a host of others with a grudge against him. One of them is a killer in waiting, and Father James must face both them and a grim road to his own Calvary.
In-depth discussion of the film, with spoilers, from here on out. For my shorter, non-spoiler, review, click here to go to The Write Club.
If I had to sum up Calvary in three words, they would be dark, sombre and powerful. This is probably one of the darkest films of the year, easily one of the blackest I have ever seen, a story rooted in the state that the Catholic Church finds itself in modern Ireland, bereft of much of its former influence and dealing with unending revelations of child abuse in its not too distant past. Such a major idea can only find itself at home in very dark surroundings, that exude sombreness, but it sure does make for some powerful, unrelentingly emotional cinema.
At the heart of that formerly mentioned Church remain its local representatives, the “good” priests that Father Lavelle embodies, trying to serve God and their parishioners in times of waning morality. A common statement from those who commentate on the clerical abuse scandals has been to mention or otherwise praise the good work done by “the majority of priests”, those who have never, and would never, even dream of touching a hair on a child’s head. But these men (and women, if we include nuns) still find themselves having to deal with the change in perception that so many have of them. Lavelle is their cinematic representative.
But that’s not really what Calvary is about. As it progresses the film takes on a very unreal quality, as Lavelle is witness to the depraved and sinful lives of those in his town, who take repeated turns at needling his faith and his profession whenever they can. It becomes very apparent, very quickly that the residents of this rural Sligo town nearly all seem to despise Lavelle, to an extent that cannot be believed if this story is to have taken place in the “real” world. Even today, nowhere in Ireland would treat its local clergyman the way these people treat theirs. The insults, the barbs, the sheer pleasure they take in being immoral in front of the man speaks to Calvary being something of deeper substance than it appears. Unreal is the term I used, and Calvary is very much that: this is not really about a priest investigating a death threat against himself, but a much more allegorical tale, one full of symbolism. The story of Lavelle see’s him go from person to person trying to ascertain, sometimes anyway, who wants to kill him. But that’s just the method by which McDonagh delves deep into the people and issues of modern Ireland, focusing on the present day plight of the ordained.
The identity of the person threatening murder against Lavelle is almost secondary to this larger issue, of whether a good priest can remain so in such trying times. Lavelle is pushed to the breaking point repeatedly in Calvary. He’s prodded, goaded and threatened. He’s beaten up in one memorable sequence, essentially accused of being a sexual predator in another. Throughout all of this, can he keep to the message of God and his son? Can a “good” priests be turned away from his beliefs?
When there is immense darkness all around, the chances of such seem very high indeed, and Calvary is replete with scenes and moments that will shake the viewer to the bone. The opening confession scene, as Lavelle hears the blunt testimony of this would be killer, left without an opportunity for vengeance against the man who defiled him, is shocking in its sheer visceral nature, this sense of someone calmly reciting the moment when he life was irrevocably shattered, and how someone has to pay for it.
That opens up the way for a gradual introduction to the town and its people, from its institutions like the pub to the temporary residents like Lavelle’s pre-ordination daughter. The inhabitants of the town, many of them anyway, seem to be metaphors for different kinds of people in modern Ireland. They include the irresponsible rich who spend money as if it means nothing to them, the married couples who have long since “settled” for a life of loveless coexistence, the gloating ungodly who revel in the newly secular nature of the state, the sexually frustrated youth who want to get away from where they came from, the children of a new Ireland whose imaginations turn to thoughts of ghosts, the bitter bankrupts looking for anybody to lash out at, the worthless clergy who want to bury their heads in the sand and pretend nothing is wrong, immigrants alien to the traditional culture and society of their new homeland and the uncaring officials who would rather wallow in the comfortable beds they have spent generations making for themselves than actually do anything practical about the issues of the day. All of these people are represented in this Sligo town and all of them are faced down by Lavelle.
All of these people get their own moment or moments with which to lay out their character to Lavelle, to challenge him and be challenged by him. One of them is a killer in waiting after all, but they have things to say and do other than that, to outline their opinions of God and his Church and to see how Lavelle will react, and how he will try and save them. It suffices to say that nearly all of the time the attempt goes badly, and by past the half way point it becomes clear that so many of these people have no interest in seeking change, redemption or any kind of forgiveness for sins they have committed. Mrs Brennan flaunts her affairs and drug use with pride, FitzGerald literally urinates on the expensive things he owns for no other reason than he can, Dr Harte takes a sadistic glee in outlining the pain and horror some of his patients have undergone, it all goes on and on.
This is a place that is glorying in its sin, with the snorting of cocaine in the bathroom, the adultery, the casualness with which the dead are treated and the final murder of the wrong man, shot dead just because he was there to be shot dead. Mired might be the right way to describe it, a town of lost souls stuck in their own version of Sodom and Gomorrah. Such a place cannot really exist, adding to the feel of Calvary being an allegorical tale. But these people and the stories that they have to tell are enthralling none the less. There is no real need to go into too much detail on the specifics of each person, only to point out that every one of them has a distinctive voice and message of their own, whether it is bitingly specific (like Harte) or derisively childish (like FitzGerald). It is to the great credit of McDonagh, as both director and writer, which he is able to do that for each person, even if all they have is a single scene.
Other characters get larger roles or a more substantial impact despite limited screen time, so it is worthwhile to explore them to a singular extent. The most important is Fiona, Lavelle’s daughter, and the most important female character in the story. She plays a sort of Mary or Mary of Magdalene role I suppose, this female comfort to Lavelle in his time of trial, a presence from another time in his life when he was not so beset by problems. She has her own unique traits and arc to follow though, separating her out from Lavelle as a character: recovering from a “cry for help”-style suicide attempt, she needs to find some purpose in a life that has grown increasingly dark.
The rural beauty of western Ireland provides solace but she’s seeking more than that. She drifted from humanity, to the extent that she has attempted to sunder herself from the rest of us permanently: Lavelle needs to try and bring her back. They discuss her mother, Lavelle’s flock and the nature of forgiveness and mercy. Through these conversations we get a full and complete picture of a dysfunctional family unit, of a man who could not hold himself together for his daughter in the aftermath of his wife’s death and two people who have the power to bring a measure of healing and understanding to each other. Lavelle needs to separate his daughter from the darker aspects of her previous lifestyle, and she needs to forgive the man who, if not quite abandoned her, was still absent which she desperately needed a fatherly figure. Fiona more than holds her own in scenes with Lavelle, and is as full and rounded as she could possibly have been I suppose. It is a male dominated production, without a doubt (so was The Guard) but still has that one very brilliant role for the opposite sex.
Forgiveness is that key to the entirety of Calvary really and the message about forgiveness is expanded upon in these conversations, most notably the last one. It’s an under-read aspect of the Church’s apparent message according to Lavelle, and those seeking it or running away from it are on the opposite sides of a dividing line in Calvary. Both Lavelle and his daughter are seeking it and giving it: she ends the film in a much more stable, if still sombre, place, largely due to the love-filled sermons of her late father, who too found strength in such conversations. If this is a Christ-metaphor, the conversations between Lavelle and his daughter could be a sort of dialogue between Jesus and his father before the taking at Gethsemane as he seeks a way out of the coming suffering. Ultimately there is none and he marches towards it with purpose.
Then there is the tourist, Teresa, whose husband is killed in an accident while travelling around Ireland and who seeks solace with Lavelle. Lavelle has precious little answers to give her as to why, but she isn’t even that interested in such things. Despite a seeming dedication to God and a belief in his presence, she apparently has no time for talk of grand plans and destiny: sometimes bad things just happen, and fair and unfair does not come into the equation. It’s not a very Catholic viewpoint, but she appears to remain one, perhaps a representative of a modern breed of Christian who do not see the faith as a means of providing an answer to the question of why we die. Lavelle encounters her twice, and twice receives a very full measure of inspiration and strength from her, and her bravery in the face of her loss. It reminds him why he became a priest and why he considers the message he is supposed to be responsible for proclaiming so important.
The prisoner, a serial murderer named Freddie Joyce, appears in just a singular scene, but one that I believe can engender radically different interpretations. Lavelle is visibly uncomfortable with being called to visit the man, but goes because it is duty. Joyce is a psychopath who does not fully seem to realise why what he did was wrong, or why Lavelle is so disgusted with him. But he still seeks absolution and is looking forward to an afterlife where hate and pain will no longer be a factor. On the one hand his viewpoint is as warped and morally broken as the inhabitants of the town: the forgiveness of sins offered by the Church should not be some kind of get out of jail free card in a metaphysical sense. On the other hand, Joyce appears to fully believe in the power of contrition: if he is truly sorry, and only he can truly know that I suppose, then he can gain forgiveness for his crimes from the almighty and join him in heaven. The scene ends with no clear indication as to Lavelle’s feelings on this particular person: Do not despair, a thief was saved. Do not presume, a thief was damned.
Towards the latter half of the film, things come to a head in a very gut-punching sequence of events. Lavelle is left upset and angry when a man hurriedly drags his young daughter away from the priest, with all the air of suspecting Lavelle was about to molest her on the spot. Lavelle breaks from his sobriety in the local pub, but finds no solace there of any real kind: the bar man and several of the establishments patrons all take their turns to mock him and his faith. His vague attempts to help any of them in their problems are thrown back in his face. Harte goes so far as to outline an horrific scenario of a hell on Earth for a child once in his care: the intimidation brings Lavelle to the breaking point, and a brawl in the pub is what follows. Back in his home he lashes out at Father Leary, his weak-willed fellow clergyman. The next day he watches on passively as this character abandons the priesthood.
This whole sequence would appear to be the main crisis point of Calvary, far more than the actual finale. There, Lavelle is at peace with what he is doing, here he seems to be all over the place. He has no set position in this society – the barman delights in pointing out how far the priesthood have fallen in importance – is treated as a joke and a punching bag, and even those who should be on his side, like Leary, have as much real moral conviction as anyone else in this godforsaken town.
But Lavelle gets through it. There are still those worth saving, not least his daughter with whom he has a final conversation, or an old man who lives alone outside the town, with whom Lavelle shares some kind final words. Secure in his faith and in that faiths capacity for forgiveness and for mercy, he walks down onto the beach, a place that is his now his own Golgotha.
Amid the darkness, there is light as well, but the skill in McDonagh’s tale may be in the way he keeps us engrossed and engaged with the balance between good and evil in Calvary. Can anyone find salvation? Calvary attempts to tackle that question, and you might be surprised by the answer. It seems you can, but you must acknowledge your failures and want to atone for them, genuinely, that standard Christian message of salvation. The journey of FitzGerald is the largest example of this, as he strays the line between seeking forgiveness and fleeing away from it, unable to reconcile his material success with the hollow emptiness within himself. Himself and Lavelle have one final encounter on that beach: all the previous ones have been failures. But here, at the end, FitzGerald comes out with some real epiphanies about his nature, having had enough of the pretence he has previously put on for the priest’s benefit. FitzGerald seems at one time to be among those furthest gone from the chance of being saved, but here he is on the shores of Calvary, seeking some kind of respite, if not quite forgiveness. Lavelle stays true to his message and promises to help FitzGerald, one of his last “good” acts: it might be just enough to save the likes of the country squire, though someone other than Lavelle will have to guide him to it the rest of the way.
The identity of the killer in waiting is not really a surprise – I don’t believe Calvary is really a murder mystery after all – but it still makes for a finale on a knife edge. Lavelle and Brennan share an enthralling final conversation, touching on the nature of detachment and justice: how we see so much evil in our news headlines but do not weep for those affected. Such a moral isolation enrages Brennan and pushes him to this end, but Lavelle does not beg for his life at this point. It is not a suicidal tendency, not in my opinion anyway, but simply the last act of a man who is willing to die if it will bring a measure of peace to the mind of another, who knows that regardless, his forgiveness is for all who seek it with honesty. Brennan pulls the trigger, but he has his regrets about it, we can tell. Our Jesus figure dies in the sand, but he does not die in vain.
The final shots comprise a short montage of the films inhabitants. They are either stuck in their roles or moving on to new ones, but few of them have fundamentally changed to any great degree. Lastly, there is Fiona visiting Brennan in prison. We see no words pass between them, but I believe that her reason for being there is inferred well enough: she has grief, maybe even anger and certainly a quest for answers. But she also has forgiveness, carrying on the last and most crucial message that her father gave her. Good wins out.
McDonagh, just as he did with The Guard’s Sergeant Boyle, makes us care deeply for Father Lavelle, a man traumatised by elements of his past, whose positive relationships with his daughter and some parishioners are outweighed rather heavily by those who are antagonistic towards him. The Christ metaphor is not hard to see, but it’s one done with subtlety and skill. Lavelle is Jesus of course, this saintly man in a dank cesspit of sinners, who sees his faith in God and in that shining message of peace and forgiveness tested to the utmost. Like the Saviour in the desert, Lavelle is tempted and tested, offered the pleasures of the world and questioned on the intricacies of the faith. His tormentors are a variety of different stand-ins, but they all represent a different kind of evil, all part of a larger demonic entity seeking to bring Lavelle down and his message with him. Calvary is thus an exploration of that 40 days leading up to the moment of self sacrifice, when Christ, and Lavelle, choose to die to placate the sins of others, holding true to their mission and their purpose all the way to the end.
You could also see Calvary as being a purgatory tale, though you would have to infer enough that the theory is mostly my own invention. Lavelle does seem to be trapped in this place, unable to leave despite the rancour and enmity of all those around them. It seems like he has to prove something before he is released: the emphasis on his daughter and her suicide attempt would led me to believe that maybe it was his own suicide that he must atone for, perhaps a path he undertook after his wife died. Now he is in this rural Irish prison, where he is tormented by these separate visions of demonic justice. Only when he has forgiven his daughter and forgiven himself, and only when he is shown to be holding true to the highest of Christian ideals, is he allowed an escape.
It is only natural to compare Calvary against The Guard, two similar films in style and location, but which have numerous other differences. On a personal level, I suppose that I enjoyed The Guard just a bit more: nearly everything that it sets out to do it accomplishes, both in terms of serious storytelling and comedic offerings. That blending of genres was done to an extent that was seamless, and The Guard also works on a multitude of other levels: as a fish out of water story, a mother/son tale, a cautionary lesson on excess and an attempt at sheer absurdist humour.
Calvary is so different that comparing the two is almost a case of apples and oranges. It is far darker, far deeper and far more disturbing. There are jokes, the blackest kind, but they are few and far between. Its seriousness outweighs everything else about it. It’s still enthralling, moving and deeply effective in what it wants to say. But I did feel that it was not quite as ambitious as The Guard, in its general plot and in the characterisation of the main character. This is a comparison between two very good films just so I am clear, I simply preferred one over the other for my own reasons.
Before I move on, it behoves me to say how reflective I felt upon the conclusion of Calvary. I don’t think I have seen any other piece of art, visual or otherwise, that has so brutally and efficiently summed up the position of the modern day Catholic Church in Ireland, albeit through a story that was mostly allegorical. There is a lot in here on the Church and how it reacts to problems, not just those relating to child abuse, but to the general miasma of much of its make-up in terms of moral courage. Calvary reminds me that there are good men and women in the institution, but the institution as a whole has proven to be an abject failure as a moral leader, no more deserving of a major place in modern society than those financial institutions that have so obviously failed us as well (and that Calvary draws a definite link between, repeatedly). It also reminds us that the state has its culpability, with Inspector Stanton’s story of being transferred away from prosecuting a molestation case involving the clergy ringing depressingly true to our ears.
Calvary certainly does make you think about it though, about what it means, what parts of it symbolise and what higher message you are supposed to take away from it. Its interpretations will surely be varied, but its quality should not be doubted. Very few films have left me sombre and thoughtful upon the credits rolling in the manner that Calvary did. It will do it to anybody that watches it through, and that is worth praising.
In acting terms, Gleeson is a phenomenon again, giving a performance in the lead role that pivots around the emotional spectrum with ease, keeping Father Lavelle from being a tired stereotype. The “good” priest is not entirely good, and nor is he some anti-hero. This priest is angry, bitter, resentful and fearful even as he is warm, caring, worried and impeccably calm when faced with the problems he must surmount. He’s a living, breathing character in other words, just as much as Gerry Boyle was in The Guard. Gleeson fills the role up with everything that he has, and makes your heart ache for every test that Lavelle must encounter, be it a flippant parishioner or the brutal murder of his dog. Gleeson is probably the best Irish actor alive today, working with a director that is able to make the best use of that talent, and he gives an incredible go of it here.
He is supported ably by the cream of Irish acting talent. Kelly Reilly is warm and engaging as Fiona, managing to give us a character that is both damaged but full of a very tangible sense of love and affection for her father. The way she is able to work off of the performance of Gleeson is measured and wonderfully executed, an important thing considering nearly all of her scenes are with him and him alone. Reilly can be a bit hit and miss (not to say I am totally familiar with her back catalogue) but she brings her all to this role here.
Much of the rest of the cast actually don’t have that much screen time of their own, being so numerous and in shot at the same time that none of them come close to toppling Gleeson and Reilly from their higher billing. But they are still, uniformly, of a very high standard.
Chris O’Dowd, who has fast become a bit of an Irish acting icon, is very memorable as the butcher Jack Brennan, who turns out to be the killer. His voice change for the opening confession didn’t mask his identity that well, but it really didn’t have to: certainly it was the last thing on my mind as I watched his full on vengeance filled turn towards the conclusion. Here is a man squirming under the weight of his own anger and shame: pretending not to know anything about the murder of a dog even as he gets ready to kill a man.
Aidan Gillen, owner of a brilliant acting talent he demonstrates at every turn, is clearly loving his role as the bitter atheist doctor, the closest Calvary gets to an outright antagonist, if only because, of all the towns inhabitants, he seems to go the most out of his way to mock and denigrate Lavelle. His entire manner and facial expression are fine tuned to the perfect picture of demonic glee, Satan-like, all the way up to his final wicked smile as he stabs a cigarette down on a freshly harvested organ.
Dylan Moran demonstrates, like O’Dowd, that those from an almost entirely comedic background sometimes have the ability to makes serious roles work the most. His FitzGerald, this country squire, is set-up as the classic bogeyman of our times, the feckless, pretentious moneyed individual and Moran sells that completely. This is a man who thinks he can buy an epiphany, and uses his recklessly volatile attitude as a screen for an obvious and haunting emptiness in his soul. Moron’s performance is understated, enthralling, but most importantly of all, very very simple. He’s another one of Ireland’s great screen presences, and you wouldn’t even know it from his regular work (God knows, Michael FitzGerald is a million miles away from Bernard Black).
These men are joined by a host of others who all make their mark. Pat Shortt is a wonderfully spiteful barman who wants to know why the Church won’t denounce bankers. Isaac de Bankole is the almost stereotypically angry immigrant. Orla O’Rourke is the flirtatious and ultimately very uncaring butcher’s wife. David Wilmot is the utterly unprincipled Father Leahy. Owen Sharpe is a male prostitute with a deranged attitude towards life. Gary Lyndon is the passive Garda Inspector. Killian Scott is the sexually repressed young man. Michael Og Lane is the wistful young altar boy who paints ghosts who aren’t there. M. Emmet Walsh is the isolated writer. Marie-Jozee Croze is the bereaved tourist. These are all simple enough characters, but this cast, working with this director, are all able to imbue their roles with a little something that marks them out very clearly even if all they have is one scene and a handful of lines. I mention only names and brief character traits here, but all of these characters are vivid and very believable, and that comes to the great work being put into them by a very special cast.
Of the cast, there are two more that I want to make special note of. It seems apt to call out Domhnall Gleeson this week, considering he will soon be one of a new generation cavorting a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. He only has one scene as the serial killer Freddie Joyce, but this young man, in acting stakes, is certainly his father’s son. He’s intense but strangely endearing in Calvary. He can make a big impact on the likes of Star Wars if he is given a chance.
Lastly, I also take special note of David McSavage’s spineless Bishop, Lavelle’s superior, an interesting casting choice given McSavage’s repeated targeting of the Catholic Church in his satirical sketch show The Savage Eye. McSavage can be quite funny, but he aims for that target so many times it becomes rather dull: here he appears to be playing the same role only without any actual humour. I just found it interesting that he was cast in such a role.
Visually, Calvary matches the style and competence of The Guard. The locales of rural Ireland are brought out well, but in a very serious way. Waves crash against the bland beach, nearby mountains tower over everyone, blazing fires light the way to an allegorical damnation and an overcast sky increase the sense of being trapped in this humdrum existence. The mountain especially is a recurring motif, shown on screen as an imposing force of nature that casts a long shadow on the nearby town, a Golgotha of sorts I suppose.
The interior lighting nearly always makes for an oppressive atmosphere, which creates the sense of being trapped and encroaching disaster quite nicely. Even in an otherwise happy scene, like a night at the bar, this feeling of darkness closing in seems very real in the minds of the audience. The sets and locales are simple, mere accompaniments to the larger story, and there are moments when you feel like you’re watching something that could just as easily have been a stage play. No special work really goes into the village, but the camera still captures much of what makes such a rural, west of Ireland location what it is, whether its billowing laundry next to grazing cattle or the modern cafes jutting in on streets built centuries before.
McDonagh likes to keep Gleeson at the centre of things as much as he can, and some of the better shots are the really simple portrait style close ups, as he talks with Joyce in the prison or as he reacts to his conversation with the young girl. Much like Steve McQueen in 12 Years A Slave, McDonagh trusts his cast to be handle the increased need to emote under such scrutiny, and Gleeson and Reilly do the necessaries. On other notable visual moments, there’s an upwards angled shot of Gleeson seeing FitzGerald urinate on a priceless painting that stays in the memory, as well as some of the closing moments: Lavelle dies and a upwards crane shot retreats into the sky, one of the only such effects present in the entire film.
The script is another wonder from the director, full of charm, meaning and purpose, easily an equal to the wonderful wordplay of The Guard. From the cackling denouncements of Gillian’s Doctor to Father James’ conversations with his daughter on the nature of sin and forgiveness, there’s enough in this script to keep an audience enthralled for a very long time. For that swath of minor characters, giving them all good lines each was absolutely crucial, and McDonagh does not disappoint.
That opening confession, full of repressed anger towards the Catholic Church in Ireland sets the tone for wordplay that could almost be described as a eulogy for the institution in Ireland, if it wasn’t for the counter force of Gleeson’s message of love throughout the rest of the film. Every needling remark to Lavelle is wonderfully weighted with just the right amount of malice, depending on the exact character. Lavelle pronouncements, whether it is his dismissive attitude towards Joyce or his very simple “You have no integrity” to Father Leahy are all written to the exact level required, with Gleeson’s top notch delivery doing the rest. The final show down between Lavelle and Brennan on the beach is as well scripted a moment as I have ever really seen this year, that ties back into the central theme of the entire film while also being an outstanding scene in its own right.
There may well be some who feel as if the script delves too deeply into metaphor and allegory by the time the credits roll, and they may have a point. There are certainly moments when you feel the symbolism has gone too far, and that Calvary’s wordplay might benefit from focusing a bit more on the actual story its telling as opposed to the one that its representing. That’s a minor complaint for me though, and I found the script work to be as good, and sometimes better, as McDonagh’s previous offerings.
Patrick Cassidy’s score is simple and not very memorable: Calvary is not the kind of film that requires a bombastic or even major score to accompany it, being a film where emotion is driven almost entirely by characters and visuals. Some of the most moving aural moments involve a complete lack of sound, such as during the initial credits. Cassidy’s work is fine, but this will not be one of his better known jobs.
A film like Calvary is full of depth and full of key themes, some of which I have touched on already. The biggest one by far is about forgiveness and seeking forgiveness. It’s what the entirety of Calvary revolves around, right from that opening quotation of St Augustine: “Do not despair, a thief was saved. Do not presume, a thief was damned.” The difference between those two figures, on either side of Jesus as he faced his own death on Calvary, is that one of them sought reconciliation with the almighty.
If you seek that, acknowledging your sins and the damage they have caused, with a firm will to make good, then you should be able to find forgiveness anywhere. God will always grant it to such people, since his capacity for it is not bound by anything. This is one of the key messages of any faith, and the propagation of it should always be one of the key missions of the Catholic Church. Amid sex scandals, greed, corruption and bigotry, it can be easy for us and the Church to forget that. Calvary reminds us, in a very vivid manner. The serial killer in prison, the woman who attempts suicide, even the Priest who left his daughter when she needed him most, they can all find absolution if they genuinely seek it.
There are those who will not seek it. Maybe they think they are without sin. Maybe they don’t care about their sin. Maybe they do not believe in the concept of a God who can grant absolution. All of these people exist in Calvary, arranged against Lavelle, the Christ figure. One of them kills him in the end. But killing him doesn’t change anything about the nature of forgiveness, any more than the existence or nonexistence of God does. We can still show mercy towards one another, with or without the words of Christ in our ears. All we need to do is ask for it, just as anyone who needs help, like FitzGerald needs to really ask for it before he can receive it. Belief in a higher power can be a powerful comfort (and a motivator) but in the end we are God’s instruments, whether we are grieving with someone who has lost somebody important, offering counselling to a person who thinks he might hurt someone because of sexual repression or accepting the burden of the Church’s past sins from somebody that it abused.
Evil is another key theme, evident everywhere in Calvary and this rural Irish town. It isn’t just in how some people in the town seem ecstatically happy to parade their indiscretions in front of the priest, for no other reason than to see his reaction, or how they fail to understand that his job isn’t to actively stop them from sinning. It’s in the really inner hatred that shines through. I used the term “Satan-like” a while ago and I stick to that: the Doctor’s story about a disabled child or the publican’s unrelenting hostility towards Lavelle or the Garda’s lack of interest in the crimes of the town are a more subtle, creepy and ultimately more demonic kind of evil, the kind not designed just to hurt in the short term, but to tear down and destroy the very essence of Lavelle’s being.
This gets its purest form in the behaviour of Brennan, who targets Lavelle for no other reason than he is there. He burns down the Church, which the townspeople leer at as it crumbles into ashes. He kills Lavelle’s dog, just to make a point about public detachment from abuse stories. He points a gun at a child briefly, and can’t be talked out of ending Lavelle’s life. All of this is an evil, but Brennan’s darker side is defeated even as he pulls the trigger: both Lavelle and his daughter will forgive him for the act. Maybe in doing so Brennan will finally find a measure of salvation. As for the others, most of them anyway, there does not appear to be any way out of the cycle.
There’s a line in The Dark Knight that brings me to the next theme: “We thought we could be decent men in indecent times.” Remaining good, holding to the teachings of Christ and refusing to lower yourself to the level of your detractors is something that resonates throughout Calvary. As stated, the intention of the demonic entities that inhabit the town seems to be to destroy Lavelle’s soul by goading him into rejecting his faith, into taking a violent path, into giving in to his baser desires. Lavelle has to try and resist this temptation, just as Christ did in the desert. He has to keep his head above water: for his daughter, for the few parishioners who want his help and for himself most of all. There is that moment when he falters, firing off a revolver in the pub and getting into a brawl, but he recovers very quickly, dismissing the false religion of Father Leahy the next morning.
Being that good man is what brings Lavelle down on to the beach, just as it brought Christ onto the cross. Being decent amid indecency is for your own peace of mind and to serve as an inspiration for others: in death Lavelle may be the lesson so many need to get out of the cesspit of their abused lives in this rural town. Or maybe not. The choice is theirs, to follow his lead of “good” living, with the mercy that comes with it, or remaining as they are.
Lastly, there is an obvious theme of death. What is religion, some characters muse, but an attempt to deal with the unavoidable void of death, that final journey into the unknown that we all must make? Lavelle is facing into that journey throughout Calvary, and his week is spent in preparation for his own inevitable passing. He spends his week trying, desperately, to do good. It succeeds in parts, fails in others. For him death is not something to flee from, or to quake before. It is something that we must each prepare ourselves for in our way, by making sure we do not leave this world with regrets, or with a guilty conscious that may be laid bare in the next life. We should not actively seek death, as Fiona tries to, nor should we dole it out in judgement, like Brennan does. But we should not cower from it either, this all encompassing force, above right and wrong, above fair and unfair. The story of Christ, and the story of Lavelle in turn, is the story of the only triumph over death that we can really aim for, at least if you are religious: the chance of a happier life after death, alongside the saviour and the thief that was saved. It is not a vision that all will share of course.
Calvary is an incredibly powerful film. It produced in me a broad range of emotions and an intense period of reflection, as I pondered the role of the Catholic Church in an age where it is increasingly despised as a force in Ireland. There is justification for that, but there are also men like Father Lavelle. Their creed and sermons are meant to comfort and raise up: Calvary is both a testament to the ability of such men, and to the failures of the Church they are a part of, that it will never be able to fully make up for.
But this is just one layer of a spiritual epic, the interpretations of which will probably vary from person to person. It is to the credit of this film that such a conversation can be made. With a leading man, supporting cast, script and director this talented and on their game, it is a film that is well worth seeing, and coming to your own conclusions. Calvary is one of the best films I have seen this year, whose individual parts form together into an enthralling and engaging whole. It’s certainly another triumph for the Irish film industry. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Entertainment One and Fox Searchlight Pictures).