Who would have guessed a film produced several years ago would suddenly and starkly regain its precedence in today’s turbulent culture regarding the goings-on within the Roman Catholic Church? But, in light of recent scandals, the 2014 R-rated movie Calvary is again very relevant. The web has classified it as “comedy,” but I assure you that the main elements played out in the plot are not humorous at all, though the dialogue is funny here and there.
The best description of the movie is this: its deep. Its sense of fulfillment is deep. The points it strives to make are deep as is the impression it leaves on the mind and heart of the viewer. Its poignant imagery and lead character won’t leave you anytime soon. Calvary requires more investment from its audience than the average movie.
As one man told me about the picture, “You’re not going to leave from this movie feeling happy.” As a human being, I declare the conclusion (at face value) is more depressing than most films I have ever seen. This is not only because of the total vices of the flesh in the R-rated film, but because the vices discussed and/or vividly depicted in it have happened and are apparently still happening. It’s not just a disgrace. It is sinister. And it scars people, especially those who are abused sexually. It is a taking advantage of one of the most personal aspects of our human dignity; it degrades the image of God in man, making him an object.
Calvary does not draw attention to the horrible sexual misconduct of the clergy. Even in this realistic representation of such scandals, the scandals themselves are not talked about at length even by the victim, Jack Brennan (played by Chris O’Dowd). Rather, the plot focuses on the further consequences which could arise from such misconduct including harm coming to the innocent.
The opening scene sets the tone of the entire movie: Fr. James (played by Brendan Gleeson) opens his heart, offering his assistance, and people toss it away like it is nothing. They treat him as one should never treat a man of God and as no human creature made in the image of God should be treated. But the story opens in the confessional. It reminds me somewhat of a scene in Soylent Green (1973) where an agent pretends to go to confession and then shoots the priest with a silencer-tipped pistol. Similarly, though not as immediately deadly, the sinner who enters the confessional in Calvary ends up threatening the priest after informing the man of the cloth that as a child he had been abused by another Catholic priest.
The identity of the ominous visitor to the confessional is revealed only at the film’s climax. His character is harboring deep and painful wounds of trauma from his youth; they are kept hidden behind his fierce anger and sickening sense of humor. He is the first victim of the story. And as the victim of such trauma, who let hatred run rampant within his heart, he victimizes an innocent member of the clergy, the Catholic institution he has grown to detest. He is playing tit for tat; he is obtaining bitter revenge, a goal in which the victim is fully aware that his target is at no fault.
Christ himself was innocent, pure of heart. Yet he became a victim of humanity’s malice, one of the many unhappy practices which has only increased since the Fall. The mentality of the abuse victim’s character in the film can be seen as a mixture of the Good Thief and the Bad Thief. Like the Good Thief who recognized Christ’s purity, Jack Brennan wholly acknowledges Fr. James’ innocence. However, more so like the Bad Thief, he wants out of his current afflictions by any means. So he decides to take out his anger on a relevant individual whom he wants to become aware of his deep suffering.
The threat from the confessional included a date set for the fateful rendezvous. Fr. James has a week before the time comes. It would turn out to be one of the most trying weeks of his life as well as his last. Perhaps the Lord Jesus felt similar anxiety in the week leading up to Good Friday for he too knew the very hour at which his death would come.
The Catholic priest undergoes what could be considered his own personal “Holy Week.” It is the pinnacle of tests in the Lenten season of the autumn of his earthly pilgrimage. Being human, he falls, not fixating his eyes on his Savior. Though not a coward, there are those moments in which Fr. James lets his fear drive his decisions. It is one rough week, one in which he confronts idolaters, substance abusers, an atheist, a serial killer, a porn addict, an elderly man with a gloomy outlook on life, a rich man who has lost all that holds true meaning in life, and a sinner who has himself been sinned against. Whether out of sheer contempt, drunken frankness, or genuine concern for Fr. Leary’s safety, Fr. James rebukes his fellow priest, so much so that the latter, taking offense, leaves his position at their local parish. Now it seems that Fr. James is all alone, but he isn’t.
Out of despair or fear for his own life, Fr. James plans to leave town for the weekend to avoid confrontation with the man who threatened him. Like the prophet Jonah, he tries shaking off his duties, running away from the call of God. Just before boarding the plane, however, he comes to his senses. He realizes, whether he likes it or not, that his place is in town. It is his duty to meet this broken man and to help him if he can.
Every Catholic priest has Christ working directly through him when he administers the Sacraments. But in Calvary, Fr. James lives out his life like Christ himself. He is always striving to help, always willing to give of himself. Obviously, this sort of life is filled with sacrifices. And like Jesus, Fr. James gives of himself in the deepest way imaginable; he lays down his life for his brother.
The movie has a number of adult themes and strong language but shows no sexually explicit images. It will leave you thinking for a long time of the virtues Fr. James exercises up to the end and particularly about forgiveness. Chastity, diligence, love, faith: all these virtues are to be practiced by devout Catholics. As this movie shows, doing so is harder and messier than we might have imagined.