August 1, 2014
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Review by James Banks

  • Collective guilt might be unjust, but sometimes it is inevitable. That, at least, is one of the conclusions to be drawn from Calvary, John Michael McDonagh's drama about the clerical abuse scandal which, ironically, does not feature a single frocked predator. This is because Calvary is not about the bad priests who caused the scandal, but about a single good priest left to deal with its consequences.

    And those consequences are severe, particularly for Father James (Brendan Gleeson), an Irish priest in northeast Ireland's County Sligo; the audience learns this in the film's very first scene, in which a faceless young man sitting in the confessioner's box informs Father James not only of past abuse by a now deceased priest, but of his intention to exact revenge by murdering Father James. To a disturbed mind, murdering a good priest seems a more fitting recompense.

    Though this threat puts the consequences of others' sins in immediate relief, Father James is also able to pick up on this new hostility from his daily encounters with his parishioners. In the opening scene, some of these parishioners are seen as communicants. But it soon becomes apparent that their piety is a face that they only put on for Sunday mass. This is the New Ireland, where one might receive the Host on Sunday and visit a gigolo, abuse a girlfriend or feed a pornography addiction from Monday morning to Saturday night.

    Father James is aware of his parishioners' hypocrisy and, while he does not indulge such habits, even he is not immune to the temptations of the world. From the drinking habit he attempts to control to the fits of rage which occasionally put him on the wrong end of a cricket mallet, Father James is also subject to the same humanity, though, unlike others in his community, his humanity has not made him grotesque. Mr. Gleeson invests Father James with a formidable and somber moral authority as he goes about his community like Saint Patrick searching for snakes to return to the sea, even though the modern version does so in a modest red convertible. Unlike his postmodern successor Father Leary (David Wilmot), Father James is not interested in selling indulgences or meeting moral failings three-quarters of the way. When the penitent come to him seeking absolution, he reassures them that he will “set them right”, but never misleads them to believe that he will do so cheaply.

    This does not endear him to the community--one which is far from the idyllic village that its pastoral setting would suggest. As enslaved as they are to their desires, the one thing that they seem to desire most of all is a priest who is equally as evil; one who would be living proof of their claims that "the Church" cares about nothing but money; or that "the Church" has no right to judge the acts of predatory bankers when they spent centuries stealing from Jews; or that "the Church" is driven only by lust underneath its pristine exterior.

    All of their claims serve as a persistent excuse for the laymen and the lapsed to ignore the parish priest's moral counsel and to offer their own invective in return. This sort of disdain even leads to them deny him their basic social obligations. When Father James's chapel is burned in retribution for "the Church's" sins, the local bailiff's reaction is, more or less, to shrug his shoulders. But as the flock-- of fiery-eyed rams, no doubt--wanders about denying that they need a shepherd, the film keeps raising a question none of them appear to have considered: Even with all the wrongs that the Church committed what will the world it once cared for be without it?

    While the people appear lost without pastoral care, there is not much sense that things can simply go back to the way they were. Sin requires recompense. And it is precisely this recompense which Father James realizes that he has to offer. At one point, when confronted by the fact that he never shed tears for the church’s abused children, he says that he always felt dissociated from events which, he believed, would never venture beyond the front pages. Not in Sligo, anyway.

    But, as he says to the daughter that he had before being widowed and receiving his vocation, we do not belong to ourselves alone. Justly or unjustly, the sins of others effect everyone. This is a lesson of which he is constantly reminded, most poignantly when he attempts to engage a teenager in a conversation about surfing only to have her father snatch her away as though she were being attacked by a viper. The look of confusion that falls across Mr. Gleeson’s face as the father shouts at him to keep away is like that of a man wakening into a nightmare, if that is indeed possible.

    Mr. McDonagh and his cinematographer, Larry Smith, complement Gleeson's performance with sweeping long shot photography which achieves the paradox of being both somber and sublime. Their Sligo is a world which does not seem pleasant to inhabit, but which rewards when viewed from a distance. And, while none of the supporting characters flesh out all three of their dimensions as thoroughly as Gleeson's Father James, they serve their purpose of providing effective foils to the county's last decent man. Of particular note are Dylan Moran as a banker going through a crisis of faithlessness to the point that he is—quite literally—pissing his money away and Marie-Jose Croze as this particular world's last layperson of faith.

    But, ultimately, the film belongs to its protagonist and it is for the protagonist that the film will most likely be remembered. Gleeson's Father James cannot carry the sins of the world and, for all his devotion, is an imperfect propitiation for sin; but it is hard to think of a film in modern memory that has portrayed more vividly what it means to take up a cross and follow.

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    August 1, 2014
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