You know that feeling you get when you know something bad is going to happen. You don’t always know when it’s going to happen, and you may not even know what exactly it is, but you know that it’s going to happen. Your stomach drops, your palms get sweaty and every time that someone says “hey, can we talk” you just know; it’s the end.
Now, imagine that you not only knew what that bad thing was, but you knew exactly when it was going to happen.
‘Calvary’ is one of those films that starts with a scene so jarring, so emotionally harrowing that you’re almost convinced that the tone set with obliterate your soul, but the way that John Michael McDonagh shapes this complex morality/spirituality tale is so effortless and so controlled that it literally sits comfortably on the viewer from frame to frame. This is a hard film to digest, because it is so controversially spun, and yet it is an easy (or at least easier than one should expect it to be) film to swallow.
But I’m telling you, that opening scene sent shivers from one end of my body to the other and really, it alone should have earned Brendan Gleeson (who’s never been better) an Oscar nomination.
In that opening scene, Father James is informed, through the confession booth, that he is going to die. He is going to be sacrificed as a bold statement against all those Catholic priests who have taken advantage, sexually, of young boys. His murderer himself was abused, horrifically, and wants justice to be served. The thing is, Father James is an innocent man, and this murderer knows this. But wouldn’t the murder of an innocent priest make more of a statement, a cautionary impact, than the murder of a man everyone knew was corrupt? So, with just a few days of life left to live, Father James goes about his business. He doesn’t want to burden the ones he loves most, and so for the most part he keeps his impending death a secret and just continues with his commission. He continues to make himself an integral part of his small seaside community, extending his hand to those in need and waiting out the inevitability of his future as he contemplates the man at the end of the gun.
‘Calvary’ cuts. It beautifully rests in this place that feels so natural and honest and so human and so when we watch Father James mediate through his day, we feel a part of his life, a part of his soul, and we understand him. We collect the information of his past and of his emotional frailties and we begin to understand the construction of his present self, which makes this man so relatable. He isn’t just a figment, a fraction of a being, an ideal with no name; but Father James is a man, an honest man, a man trying to be what he promised himself he’d become because of the man he used to be and longs to forget.
And this is where ‘Calvary’ becomes more than just another movie about the Catholic Church and their history with child abuse.
Yes, child abuse is mentioned more than once, and the allegations that continue to swarm the church are used as ammo against an honest man and his vocation, but at the core of ‘Calvary’ lies something more; a feeling of universal failings and the encroaching corrosion of sin and guilt. Father James, a man who was, for all intents and purposes, completely innocent of the crime he was being punished for, was not an innocent man, at least not in his own eyes, and being confronted with this act of essential martyrdom brought flooding back to him the unsettling realization that no matter how hard you may try and dress up your mistakes, hiding them behind a title and a robe, you can never fully escape your past mistakes. Father James was a good man. We watched him as he bonded with his daughter and reached out to those in the community in clear need and heard out the cries from those in clear pain and we saw the genuineness in his face as he took in their circumstance, but we also saw that the damage had been done. He had been reminded. He had been outed, so-to-speak, and because of that he would forever be doomed to his inevitable.
‘Calvary’ has so many interesting things to say about faith, about our past mistakes and our own willingness of forgive or to persecute ourselves, regardless of where we are on our current path, and how much faith can or can’t fix those things for us.
Just contemplate the decision Father James makes…about his own life.
An A. So much an A from me, and possibly even more given more time to reflect. I'm so overwhelmed with just how much this film has to say, and how strongly it says it. More films about faith, life and guilt should be made in this fashion, because these are the kinds of films that resonate for a long time.