The Passion of Father James
DIRECTOR: JOHN MICHAEL MCDONAGH/2014
Calvary opens with a jolt. In a tightly framed shot inside a confessional booth, Father James (Brendan Gleeson) hears, in graphic detail, that one of his parishioners was sexually abused by a priest as a child. It’s a bold start to a film that is part suspense thriller, part detective story, part black comedy. But Calvary is also something more. The central metaphor of the film is not withheld for long. There’s that title, after all. And then there’s the rest of the “confession” in which the penitent – if such a word applies in this case – announces his plan to kill Father James. The guilty priest is long dead, and besides, the anonymous man explains, the abusers death would mean nothing to him anyway. “But killing a good priest – an innocent – that would be a shock….I’m going to kill you because you’re innocent.”
Father James is given seven days to “set your house in order”, and told to meet his executioner on the beach the following Sunday. And thus Father James sets out on his Seven Stations of the Cross, his own passion. What remains to be seen is whether he will ultimately go all the way to the cross, or find a way to let this “cup of suffering” pass from him.
Calvary, directed by John Michael McDonagh (The Guard) is set in modern day Ireland, with the recent history of the Catholic Church as its backdrop. Father James really is a good priest; convinced of his call, determined to serve the people of his parish. But he carries the image of the Church as he wears his cassock, and that image is in tatters. Over the course of the movie Father James is reminded, mercilessly, of the financial corruption, sex abuse scandals and declining influence of the church. After hearing that one of his parishioners plans to kill him, Father James exits the confessional and carries on with his work, presiding over Mass. McDonagh shows each communicant receiving the Host from the priest, laid on their tongues. It’s an act of great intimacy; the congregants faces lifted toward the priest, mouths open to receive spiritual nourishment. One is reminded of the trusting attitude of a small child with a parent. It’s also misleading, as the movie will show that this particular congregation is not only rife with sin but with contempt for their Father.
The local surgeon is an atheist who tries to shock Father James with his callousness toward human life, and the local pub owner, a Buddhist, demonstrates that not all Buddhists are committed to non-violence.
A married woman flaunts her adulterous affair. Her husband (Chris O’Dowd)seems unalarmed by his cuckolding. The lover taunts Father James when confronted. A wealthy financier (Dylan Moran), living in a manor outside the village, dangles promised donations in front of Father James and his fellow priest as if he’s toying with pet dogs. A socially awkward young man confides to Father James that he’s so hungry for female companionship that it’s making him murderously angry – and wonders if his rage might make him a good fit for the army. The local surgeon is an atheist who tries to shock Father James with his callousness toward human life, and the local pub owner, a Buddhist, demonstrates that not all Buddhists are committed to non-violence. One of Father James’s former church members is even in prison, a cannibalistic serial killer (played by Gleeson’s own son, Domhnall Gleeson).
In other words, Father James is surrounded by the worst that humanity has to offer. He responds to the vices of his community with wry humor, exasperation, and occasionally real anger. The days tick by, counting down to his appointed time, and still Father James tries to serve faithfully. He is joined by his daughter (Kelly Reilly) visiting after what may have been a halfhearted suicide attempt. The townspeople in Calvary are (for the most part) so vile that they hardly seem human. Father James, on the other hand, is entirely real. Gleeson gives a powerful, poignant performance as a man who is virtuous but weary and afraid. How can he minister to people who mock him, torment him, try to draw him into their own sins? And how can he face – or escape – his potential killer?
This is, perhaps, a movie that will be read differently depending on the perspective of the viewer. Is it primarily a comedy? It is very funny, even if the jokes are sometimes as cruel as the characters. Is it a ticking-clock suspense film? Or is Calvary actually asking profound questions about redemptive suffering? Father James is certainly a Christ figure, being asked to not only bear the sins of one pedophilic priest, but of every failure and corruption in his church. Perhaps he’s also bearing the sins of his community, and the hostility he so often encounters is because he is a visible challenge to those sins. Confronted by the quiet presence of Father James, the adulterer, the swindler and the murderer see themselves for who they really are.
Jesus, like Father James, was mocked, beaten, abandoned by friends, and tempted to avoid dying for the miserable lot of humanity. Christians everywhere believe that His death was a means of grace, the salvation of the world. While Father James could never hope to match that achievement, the Catholic Church has long taught that human suffering, when offered up in union with the sufferings of Jesus, can remit the punishment of another’s sins. As dark as the picture of human nature is in this film is, there is grace and courage in the willingness of Father James to lay down his life – not in death, but in his ongoing commitment to his calling – for people who are so deeply undeserving.
McDonagh uses names from Christian tradition both evocatively and ironically. Veronica and Simon are no longer those who aid and comfort Jesus on his way to the cross: in this narrative they are among the mockers. Only a woman from outside the community (Marie-Josee Croze), grieving the death of her husband, seems to share the deep faith that Father James clings to. She’s a beatific presence in the film, pointing this good priest back to his calling when he’s started to despair.
Calvary is a dark, brutal, shocking, ugly film. It’s also beautiful, moving and infused with grace. That grace is almost entirely channeled through one embattled, lonely man, determined to live out the peace and forgiveness that he’s preached for so long.