Written and Directed by John Michael McDonagh
“Killing a Priest on a Sunday, that would be a good one.”
A Catholic Priest, especially on a Sunday, while he celebrates Mass, acts In Persona Christi (in the person of Christ) transforming the bread and wine in to the body and blood of Christ, re enacting the transforming healing and redemptive act of Jesus through his life death and resurrection, all focused on the moment of Crucifixion and resurrection, which is were the point of Mc Donaghs title Calvary comes from. This is a movie about death and resurrection, about the death of an old order, the condemnation of corruption, and the on-going self analysis and self questioning Irish Society must go through in order to resurrect itself. Its also funny.
Dealing with more issues relating to contemporary Irish society than one could shake a stick at (the decline of faith, the corruption of bankers and their non subsequent imprisonment, the consequent increase in affluence and education on the population, bankruptcy, the sexual abuse of children by the Catholic Clergy and its devastating effects on belief in the Church, the erosion of a cohesive sense of identity in Irish Society, the decline of Catholic Culture, Suicide and its after effects, the meaning of marriage, forgiveness, love, sex) starring Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran and Isaach de Bankolé, this is a must-see despite its flaws: for the writing is as excellent as are the performances by the actors.
I use the word flaws because the movie gives a somewhat unbalanced view of both society and clergy in order to make its many sharp edged points. Set in a small Sligo town whose windswept countenance truly gives an uncomforting feel to every encounter with its population, one experiences a portrayal of the Catholic Clergy, with notable the exception of Gleeson’s warm wise and lovable character, as idiots or corrupt, which is unfair. The other problem with the film is its reduction of the society which Fr. James mixes in as representative of archetypes rather than real substantial people, mainly for the purposes of portraying the black comedic elements in the film. One has the atheistic doctor scientist, the sensitive daughter of the priest who has tried to kill herself because of her despair at an unloving world, the depressed soulless self loathing corrupt property owner, the furious bankrupt pub owner, the world weary writer finishing his final masterpiece on a lonely island and the victim of horrific sexual abuse. Where are the mothers and the fathers and the cinema goers and the ordinary shoppers and the tourists and ‘the lonely men in shirtsleeves leaning out of windows’ (to crib T. S. Eliot) who comment and chat and come and go and for whom life goes on as it always has? This is a film filled with intellectual pyrotechnics and lacking in a touch of everydayness.
So in the first moments of the movie the aforementioned victim of horrific sexual abuse confronts Fr. James in the confessional and says he will kill James the next Sunday, because James is a good man and it would be worse for the Catholic Church than killing a bad priest. The other point being that the real criminal, the true abuser, is dead. This is Fr. James’ personal Calvary. James has seven days to his death. He knows he will die in seven days and though he can get out of it, he doesn’t. Just as Jesus knew he was going to die for others’ sins, so James too will accept death for the purposes of atonement for the crimes of others. He goes through his week seeing his church burned down, his dog killed, his sobriety wrecked, his integrity and authority as a clergyman treated with disdain, and the final awful moment when he too is treated by a worried father as a possible paedophile simply because he is a priest. Its too much. James goes on to his Calvary on the beach. And there in the final moments of the film we reach a kind of resolution. The incalculable psychological, spiritual and personal devastation that child rape leaves upon its victims is played out in the final scenes of this film, the betrayal, the pain, the loss of selfhood, the loss of power, the bleeding and the horror, are beautifully portrayed in the moments as the movie closes.
Watching it as someone who long long ago lost his faith but understands the mythology and the poetry of this cult of death, this is a powerful and beautiful piece of work, a call for honesty and truth and reconciliation, and most of all the imprisonment of those who abuse children.