Some critics have called Irish director John Michael McDonagh’s film, Calvary, an absurdist comedy. But it is only absurdist in the sense that St. Paul writes, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.” For it is the power of God that is portrayed here, power made manifest through a vessel broken and glued back together, the repairs heartbreakingly plain.
Brendan Gleeson, a rough bear of a man, plays Father James Lavelle, a County Sligo priest and late vocation, who toils in an ugly frame church in a village where people are dying, not from hunger or war, but from despair and drunkenness, greed and lust, loneliness and rage. Father James, a reformed alcoholic whose wife died and whose only daughter has attempted suicide, knows these demons. But he also knows God, and it is that simple, hard won faith that makes this movie such an important one.
We meet Father James on a Sunday in the confessional, as he hears a man’s voice pour out his hatred for the priest who, he says, abused him daily for years, destroying his childhood and everything afterwards. He tells Father James the priest is dead, beyond his reach, and, anyway, what difference would it make to kill a bad priest? But to kill a good priest, that would wound the church as he has been wounded. He says he will give him a week to get his affairs in order and then they will meet on the shore, where he will kill Father James.
So the Passion story begins, for that is what McDonagh has given us. And it’s all the more powerful for Gleeson not playing the role of Christ, but rather playing the role of one of Christ’ followers, a weak man whose only strength is in his faith and in his vocation. Father James sets out, and we follow him day by day, wondering how he will put his affairs in order, prepare for his death. He knows the man who threatened him, he tells his bishop, but he refuses to break the seal of the confessional and refuses to alert the authorities. He does make a special effort to spend time with his recovering daughter, but, other than that, he just goes about his work in the village, which is to say, he does the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
We watch as Father James visits the sick and imprisoned, as he buries the dead, as he admonishes the sinner and instructs the ignorant, counsels the doubtful and comforts the sorrowful. We watch as he bears wrong patiently (until he doesn’t and must start again) and forgives all injuries. And what can seem like a worksheet for Catholics comes to awe-full life.
There are people in the village who need his faith to fail in order to justify their own despair. There are people who need to buy his approval as proof of their own belief that everyone and everything can be bought. There are people who need him to fall to confirm their convictions about ecclesiastical corruption. There are people who need him to die in order to affirm their deadened souls. His own daughter feels abandoned by his calling. But he says, simply, “I have a vocation.” His weary mercy is necessary, and though he is tempted to flee, he plods on, a large, unkempt man in a black cassock doing what he has been called to do.
Go see this movie. (But don’t bring the children. This is a movie for adults and very mature teens with whom you can have an honest discussion afterwards.) Then go see it again. And thank a good priest. Write a note, make a phone call or a visit. Say a prayer of thanksgiving for the men who serve God and us. In this most unheroic movie, McDonagh and Gleeson have given us an enduring hero.
– Melissa Musick