Thoughts on Calvary
John Michael McDonagh's latest venture, Calvary, stars Brendan Gleeson and a whole cast of compelling actors, including Chris O'Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan 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.