'Calvary' Asks Us to Walk Alongside a Good Man

A village priest (Brendan Gleeson) in coastal Ireland hears weekly confessions. His parishioners enter, knowing that there’s little to no anonymity in the booth because he knows them, each and

Aug 20, 2014 at 10:55 am

A village priest (Brendan Gleeson) in coastal Ireland hears weekly confessions. His parishioners enter, knowing that there’s little to no anonymity in the booth because he knows them, each and every one, by name and voice, but there remains a strict adherence to the sacramental code of the ritual. And so, when an agitated member of the flock sits down and unburdens himself, detailing a past history of abuse at the hands of a priest, the melancholy pastor listens, realizing that there will be little he can do to address this man’s pain.

But the situation turns. It is not a confession at all. The wounded man explains that the priest who wronged him is dead, and he further opines that it wouldn’t matter, not really, if the perpetrator were alive; killing him would solve nothing. He was an evil man, but the true nature of his offense was robbing his victim of his innocence. So, while sitting there in the confession booth, he hatches his own plan for retribution. He decides that in a week’s time he will meet his current village priest on the shore and take his life. You have one week, he tells the priest, to make peace with your world and your God.

Within the Biblical context, Calvary was the site beyond the walls of Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified. Earlier translations refer to it as Golgotha, but the King James translation of the Bible is recognized as the first instance when Golgotha was anglicised to Calvary, and it is fitting that this new film by writer-director John Michael McDonagh bears this name.

Calvary assumes the tone and tenor of a modern Gospel narrative. Father James (Gleeson) is a disciple of Christ, a man of faith, but also always a man of the world. At one time married, he turned to the priesthood after his wife died. He has a daughter named Fiona (Kelly Reilly), who’s struggling to keep herself out of trouble and is in need of a father, only to realize that the man who sired her has sought out others in need of guidance. Father James, we come to realize, also battled with the bottle and issues of rage. Wandering among his flock, we come to see Father James as a deeply flawed man like any other — in many ways, exactly like the men who took to following Christ.

McDonagh explained in a recent phone interview the origin of the story. “I got drunk in a bar one night [while wrapping up 2011’s The Guard, which also starred Gleeson],” McDonagh says, “and [Gleeson] asked what I was planning to do next and I said I always had an idea to do a story about a good person. They’re not making that many movies about genuinely good people anymore, usually because it is a tough narrative device to follow a good man all the way through, because good people in movies tend to be boring.”

It was a bold choice, going with a priest as a “good” man in today’s world, but it works because McDonagh doesn’t shy away from the current associations with the priesthood. It also helps that the narrative and Gleeson’s performance challenge audiences to reconsider what it means to be “good.” Here, goodness is about an inherent striving to do what is right, while fully acknowledging that failure doesn’t necessarily diminish the effort or the intent.

The aim, McDonagh points out, “was for the priest to have a kind of moral authority.” 

“There’s a tendency, say, in Ireland, where a priest would be giving counsel to a young couple about to get married, on sexual matters, and obviously they would be thinking, ‘Well, what do you know about sexual matters?’ ” he says. “So I wanted the priest to have that kind of authority. To show that he’s lived a full life, that he’s confident enough to give this kind of advice without coming across as moralistic.”

And Father James being a recovering alcoholic solidifies things even more. 

“When he’s giving advice,” McDonagh says, “he’s genuinely coming from a place of trying to be helpful because he has failed and recovered. He is sincere and he has integrity and all of his failings are out there in the open. Everyone knows what his failings were.”

The summer of 2014, on the independent side, has seen at least two other films (I Origins and Wish I Was Here) that explored questions of spirituality in a rather direct fashion. There is a refusal — although not in a confrontational way — in the other films, to ascribe meaning to a particular faith, and while McDonagh posits his narrative in Catholic tradition, the good and ill of it, his intention was not for Calvary “to be an anti-religious film, but an anti-authority film.” 

He says, “We are recognizing that our so-called leaders have failed us and the fallout from that will go on (in film and literature) for the next couple of years.” (Opens Friday) (R)

Grade: A


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