Father Lavelle is a good priest. He is honest, humble, hardworking. He is also going to be killed in seven days. The man on the other side of the confessional says that he was raped by a priest as a child. That priest has long since died, but, says the man, he is going to kill Father Lavelle instead – not because he is a bad priest, but because he is a good one. Killing a good priest, he explains, will really make a statement. It is from this startling revelation that John Michael McDonagh’s film Calvary builds a tale of faith, pain, betrayal and forgiveness that is a beautiful challenge to believers and nonbelievers alike.
Our priest (Brendan Gleeson) knows who his potential assassin is, but refuses to tell anyone. He doesn’t go to the police, and he doesn’t at first seem tempted to flee. Over the next week, Sunday to Sunday, we see him tend his flock as usual. And this flock requires a great deal of tending. Lavelle says Mass, and makes his rounds in the small Irish village. He speaks to an impenitent adulteress, to a depressed millionaire, to a hermitic writer and an imprisoned serial killer. He speaks to his bishop about the threats, and to his fellow (less-than-competent) village priest. He also connects with his adult daughter, Fiona (he was a widower before joining the priesthood) who is recovering from a suicide attempt. Most of the townsfolk make a routine out of jabbing the man for his vocation. They taunt him with their skepticism, flaunt their sins, and mock his supposed lack of power in their community. He is the whipping boy for their every complaint against the Catholic Church. They claim indifference, and yet can’t leave him alone. As the week progresses and his appointment with death approaches, Lavelle’s faith is battered on all sides by callous remarks and acts of cruelty. And yet he remains. At times it seems his main duty as a priest is to stand still and let the waves of their anger crash against him. Stoic but not superhuman, Father Lavelle feels every slap, whether verbal or physical. His faith in God is in less danger than his faith in humanity.
His landscape, however, is not entirely bleak. He is given respite in a beautiful scene in which he administers last rites to a man killed randomly and too young. The widow seems surprised when told that such a tragedy would make many people curse God and lose their faith. “It must not have been much of a faith to begin with,” she remarks. She does not feel that her husband’s death is unfair. “Many people do not live good lives, and they do not feel love. That is what is unfair. I feel sorry for them.” Gleeson’s mere presence onscreen is enough to assure us that this priest is living a good life, and does indeed feel love. He speaks to people on their own terms, dealing with them as they are, not as they ought to be. No problem or confession he hears would be met with a rote recitation of doctrine. He toils with people, listens to them, and doesn’t judge their brokenness. This stands in stark contrast to the other local clergymen. His co-curate is a man small of spirit, venal and mediocre, who treats the priesthood like just another job. The bishop, though sympathetic, peers academically over his glasses and strolls through his manicured garden in a way that raises doubts he’s ventured outside the rectory walls in his life. Father Lavelle, however, is the kind of priest the world needs most – unlikely to ever achieve fame or be honored, just quietly reiterating news of God’s mercy until the day he dies.
Calvary is a striking film, tough to watch but thoroughly rewarding. It is framed not as a whodunit but as a parable, one desperately needed by a Church so bruised and jeered at. We are shown an Ireland stinging with injustice, roiling with anger over decades of abuse, denial, and indifference from the religion so integral to its identity. Before Father Lavelle is ever told he will die to atone for sins that aren’t his, he is already a scapegoat. But he has the humility to bear every insult without rebuttal. People don’t need a Church that considers itself impervious to its own mistakes. Too many Catholics have made excuses in the face of the abuse scandal, detached themselves from feeling its horror, rationalized and ignored the gravity of what happened. The only true integrity can be a Church howling in pain alongside the abuse victims, taking their hands and refusing to avert its eyes from their wounds.
This film is brooding but not dour, and John Michael McDonagh shares his brother Martin’s talent for whimsical pitch-black wit. Laughs are rare, however, and brittle. The performances are all excellent, with Brendon Gleeson (whose son Domhnall, a rising star himself, plays the convicted killer) sterling as usual. His presence in this film radiates such grounded decency that it’s a shame he was overlooked for most major awards this year. Gleeson is long overdue for recognition, and creating a character whose goodness is neither trite nor boring is no easy accomplishment. Perhaps the only notable flaw is the film’s occasional self-referentiality; characters make a few meta comments about their “opening lines” and “act-three revelations” that threaten to distract from Calvary’s sincerity.
This movie is not for the faint of heart, as its shocking opening line may drive sensitive viewers away right at the start. But this is as it should be. It is refreshing to see a religious film whose roughness hasn’t been sanded down to be palatable to the masses, and Calvary earns its moments of transcendence by the raw reality it’s unafraid to depict. Audiences don’t need sanitized stories with Hallmark-card sentiments about hope and faith; they need honest grappling with uncomfortable truths. There is fullness to this movie, a warmth underneath its jagged edges, that makes Calvary a pleasure akin to a well-done Good Friday service. McDonagh hasn’t set out to pillory the Catholic Church for its failures. After all, as Father Lavelle tells his daughter, “There’s too much talk about sins, and not enough talk about virtues… Forgiveness has been highly underrated.”