Thoughts on Calvary

John Michael McDonagh's latest venture, Calvary, stars Brendan Gleeson and a whole cast of compelling actors, including Chris O'DowdKelly ReillyAidan GillenDylan Moran and Isaach de Bankolé. It is probably fair to say that the younger McDonagh stepped out definitively as something more than Martin's brother and creative collaborator with this one.  

I challenge the reviews that refer to this as a black comedy.  It's not black, but rather demonic, humor.  Until a point, after which it is not funny anymore.  "Beautifully bleak?" Indeed. "Mordantly funny?" Yes.  But the New Yorker reviewer who called it silly either didn't see the film or really doesn't get Ireland, Catholicism or, well, death.

Full disclosure: I might have had a panic attack in the movie theater.  Not at the scene, but at the bar scene, the one that suggests that the whole thing is on a rapid downhill slide.  If you saw the movie, you know what I am talking about.  If you didn't, I don't think it really matters anyway.  Just so you know that I got so shook up I couldn't breathe.  At a movie.  That consciously I understand is a fictionalized portrait, an imagined life. Designed to feel real.  

What does Calvary have to do with memory?   Well, the premise of the film is that a member of a small, rural community in the west of Ireland (somewhere in County Sligo) enters into Father James Lavelle's confessional and informs the priest that in a week's time he will murder him as retribution for countless acts of sexual abuse visited upon the speaker for over a decade by a different priest, years ago.  It was because Lavelle was a good priest that he would be the target -- in the victim's mind, this is the most fitting retribution for his own life destroyed. 

It's a twenty-first century Passion, I guess. The film follows Lavelle's footsteps, much like we follow Christ's steps to Calvary, during the seven days his self-identified killer has given him to put his affairs in order.  They aren't peaceful days, personally or professionally.  He tends his flock, ministers to his adult daughter who has a tendency to unsuccessfully try to commit suicide when love goes wrong.  (In the film, Lavelle was widowed, nearly drank himself to death, answered his vocational calling and is in on-again/off-again recovery.) 

In the community where Calvary takes place, the role of the priest is more important than ever.  At least the role of an ideal priest --- humane, patient, generous, non-plussed by the things people get up to but passionate about our responsibilities to one another.   In hundreds of moments of generosity, witness and understanding, we see Lavelle following the Christ figure's model, day by day, step by step.

The film is a painful one to watch; its one of the most powerful portrayals of the corrosive, violent legacies of the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church I've seen to date.  We are not sure if Lavelle knows who his killer is, but there's good reason to guess he does.  The bishop to whom he turns is a mealy-mouthed tosser who can neither help Lavelle sort through his anxieties around the threat nor acknowledge the injustices that have twisted and corrupted the would-be killer. 

In the bishop's cowardice, we witness a powerful metaphor for the silence  a generation of victims of sexual abuse, their families and the Catholic faithful met.  The same with Lavelle: viewers get a glimpse of the painful challenges facing those who joined the priesthood out of a sense of profound faith and a call to service, only to discover that they themselves must bear a set of burdens placed on them by the Church and its pathologies.  To love in the face of this history is an act of courage. To be open-hearted is to risk all.  Your very best cannot absolve the institution of the lives it destroyed.  And yet you must still do your very best.

This film is also, subtly but definitively, about forgiveness. There's a lovely young French widow, whose husband was killed in a car accident by drunk teenagers while the couple was doing archaeological research in Sligo.  She is coming to terms with the meaningless of her world's destruction and grasping at the beauty and love she had known.  Both the death and the joy, she contends, are inexplicable; to center on the pain would deny the good and would serve no one. I suppose she represents faith and reminds viewers the extent to which faith, like happiness, is a choice and a discipline.

The most painful part of the story for me involved a new generation -- a young altar boy whose parents are never on the scene, who is wary and savvy and yet trusts Father Lavelle fully.  A healed fracture in the bones of the faith.  He becomes important as a witness to the events of the film. I am tempted to say the message of witness suggests boldly, painfully, that retribution is impossible without inflicting more damage on innocents.  But that would suggest there is some larger morality lesson here, a call to forgiveness. And I don't think there is, at least not simply, not neatly, not only.  It is just an extremely hard-headed encounter with the intractable legacies of injustice and trauma and the multi-generational intimacies of violence in small communities.  Like the film, I have no answers.  But these are things worth thinking about.


  1. You're certainly making me want to see it. I do hope it lets you go at some point, however. Thanks, Margo.

    1. I will be so curious to hear what you think, Tinky. I also hope it lets go -- funny how the other summer heavy-hitter, Ida, was just as disturbing, but I let it go almost immediately and this lingers in my thoughts and even in my dreams.

  2. And here, the brilliant and thoughtful Dermot Quinn sums up the film much more effectively and evocatively than I ever could. His comparison to Christ is fascinating:

    I thought it was a kind of masterpiece - a film not primarily about the sex abuse crisis or even the dark, picaresque quirkiness of an Irish parish but about the action of redemptive grace in human lives. The priest is of course a Christ-figure who, innocent, is prepared to make an act of sacrificial atonement for the sins of others, taking on another person's guilt so that others - and in particular his murderer - may be freed from sin.

    His week long Via Dolorosa is punctuated by the vanities and weaknesses of the other priest, the bishop, his hypocritical parishioners, and so on, and by occasional glimpses of grace from, for instance, the newly widowed French woman.

    Like Christ he falls (in his case, off the wagon).
    Like Christ, he wishes that the cup be taken from him (the abortive escape). Like Christ, he realizes that he must return to accept the will of the Father.

    When at last he ascends his Golgotha, his place, all too literally, of the skull, his death is Christ's: first wounded and issuing blood from his side, then finished off with an almost unwatchable crown of thorns. But the redemptive moment comes afterwards.

    As the movie begins with a confession, so it ends with one: the killer in gaol, screened off by a glass panel, seeking and receiving the forgiveness of the priest's daughter. Without that, the act of atonement would simply have been a kind of moral vanity on the priest's part, such as Eliot describes in the fourth temptation in Murder in the Cathedral. With it, it becomes an act of love.

    I thought it was a superb film, beautifully written, brilliantly acted by Gleeson, and stunning to look at.


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