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August 8, 2014

The Irish are known for their good cheer, but as often as not that’s just the surface. There’s a lot of pain spread out across the Irish countryside, and a lot of sorrow. John Michael McDonagh meditates on this pain in his marvelously dark and sensitive film, Calvary

Much of this pain flows from the bad actions of the Catholic Church in Ireland, of which we were most recently reminded in Philomena. But of course there’s also the ongoing abuse scandal; we know about it here in America, where we’ve turned it into a running gag, but it’s far worse in Ireland. Remember when Sinéad O’Connor got banned from SNL in 1992, provoking outrage from Joe Pesci and Madonna? yeah, this is what she was protesting. Then there’s the financial collapse, again far worse in Ireland than on this side of the Atlantic, and any number of other more mundane tribulations.

We open in a confessional, on the shadowed face of Fr. James (Brendan Gleeson). A man enters the other booth; Fr. James recognizes the voice, but we don’t see him. He speaks of his childhood abuse at the hands of a priest. The abuser is dead; a complaint would do no good. And besides, what would it matter to punish a bad priest. But to kill an innocent priest would get attention, and would hold the Church as a whole responsible for the actions it has tacitly condoned. And so, in just over a week, the man says he will kill Fr. James.

For all the pain it has caused, the Church is still tremendously important in the lives of the Irish people, particularly out on the western coast. Fr. James knows the man is one of his parishioners; we see them receiving communion. His life may be threatened, but he still has work to do. Fr. James stands for that portion of the Church who have a genuine calling to minister to the spiritual health of their community. His fellow priest, Fr. Leary (David Wilmot), is more accountant than acolyte. He is an unreflective bureaucrat who doesn’t seem bothered by the failure of ecclesiastical authority.

And so Fr. James continues to minister to his flock: The butcher (Chris O’Dowd), whose wife is cheating on him; the washer-woman (Orla O’Rourke), acting out some unspoken, sometimes violent sexual psychodrama; the immigrant (Isaach de Bankolé), a handyman with a short temper; the dweeb (Killian Scott) desperate for a sense of his masculinity; a visitor (Marie-Josée Croze), whose husband has suffered a senseless accident; the gruff publican (Pat Shortt); the surly, atheist doctor (Aidan Gillen); the shady financier (Dylan Moran); the convicted psychotic murderer (Domhnall Gleeson). He even arranges, in this last week, a visit from his daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), still hurt on some level by Fr. James’ response to her mother’s death.

Each of his parishioners carries around their own measure of pain and anger, and Fr. James is there to listen to them all, even as he is impotent to offer any temporal solutions. Each of them pours out their own measure of bile over the Church in general and Fr. James in particular, and still he listens, taking their anger as a sacrificial lamb for the sins of the Church. His last week plays out slowly, and he falls along the way, but Fr. James ultimately delivers himself up while hoping that the final cup of bitterness might pass from him. In the end, he has no more choice than all the other broken people he cares for.

It would be easy enough for McDonagh to pour out his own anger at the Church in Ireland; outside the film he declares it “essentially finished”. And yet he offers us a story that behaves as neither a polemic nor an apologetic, but which balances precariously between the two. He takes great care and consideration to present each character’s pain as real and valid, including the one who threatens Fr. James’ life. But at the same time he presents a last vestige of the true Church, even if it seems that this must be destroyed to pay for what the rest has become. McDonagh encapsulates this balance in his epigraph form St. Augustine, also famously alluded to by Beckett in Waiting for Godot: “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned”.

The Church in Ireland, like so many institutions of authority, has become corrupted, and yet some shred of its original purpose remains; it’s not easy to just dispose of the whole thing while people still need what good it once offered, even as they hate what it has become. But we may yet hope, as Fr. James believes of the original Calvary, that the coming death promises more of redemption than destruction.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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