By Bonnie Anderson and Dan Webster
The striking austerity and dramatic contrasts of the Irish coast landscape is the setting for this remarkable film. Like the dangerous beauty of Sligo County, Ireland, this film is a masterful study in the juxtaposition of gentleness and violence, humor and seriousness, life and death, sin and forgiveness.
Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is the seemingly gentle priest of a Roman Catholic parish in this rural Irish village by the sea. In the confessional, during the opening scene, an unidentified parishioner tells Father James of his repeated and merciless childhood abuse by a now deceased priest. Father James is then told that he has one week to get his affairs in order before the parishioner will kill him. Father James is to be the sacrificial atonement for the sins of an abusive priest and the neglect of the church to successfully address child abuse on a large scale. We do not know the identity of the threatening parishioner, but it doesn’t really matter. This film is not a “who-dun-it” (or is going to do it) but rather a well-crafted glimpse into the depth of the human heart where both love and hate reside.
“Calvary,” beautifully directed by John Michael McDonagh, may be one of the ways Ireland is trying to heal from such a catastrophic breach of trust. The church is more part of the social fabric of Ireland than nearly any other country. The church runs the schools, hospitals, and other social welfare agencies that in other countries are operated by local or state governments.
The struggles of faith in “Calvary” are bluntly visible in the lives of the sometimes comical, but tragically vulnerable people of the village. Yet the priest stays aloof, and demonstrates none of his own vulnerability as he attempts to address questions of faith posed to him by the people. We watch as he experiences this same distancing by a church superior to whom he has gone for advice regarding the threat to his life. As Father James explains the threat, the bishop noisily licks his fingers and gives more attention to the delectable edible in front of him than he gives to Father James, who, by the way, doesn’t seem to notice. No wonder Father James is aloof with his own parishioners, he has a good mentor.
After the threat to his life and his visit to the superior, Father James maintains his “business-as-usual” routine, visiting parishioners and gently confronting them with their sinful behaviors, all the while maintaining a profoundly subtle detachment from them that appears as impenetrable as the seaside rocky cliffs they all inhabit. He mourns the loss of his dog in solitude, we see him pray only in solitude, his decisions are made in solitude. No surprise that the parishioners are non-pulsed as they watch the church burn. It appears there is no tended community of the faithful and it is this aloofness that permeates the relationships between the priest and the people and ultimately between the priest and God.
Calvary, also known as Golgotha or the Place of the Skull, is believed to be the site of the crucifixion of Christ and it is in this contemporary Calvary that Brendan Gleeson (Fr. James) and a fine supporting cast, show us the changing social circumstances of practicing religion in the context of a society that appears to have little use for it.
For Fr. James it’s his own passion week complete with blessing bread and wine, harsh words, flawed characters, and his own agony in the garden (well, actually it’s in a pub). There are acts of violence against the church and its priest. But it’s clear that gospel values of goodness, mercy and non-violence are respected as is the gospel story of an innocent victim atoning for the sins of others.
Even with all that, forgiveness appears to transcend the contemporary social context and remain as a common denominator in the language of faith.
“Calvary” should be seen by most anyone who has served in parish leadership, or been the recipient of or given pastoral care. Victims of clergy sexual abuse, however, may wish to consult their therapist before seeing this.
Bonnie Anderson is senior warden at All Saints-Pontiac, Michigan and immediate past president of The Episcopal Church General Convention’s House of Deputies. Dan Webster is a priest in the Diocese of Maryland and former broadcast news executive.