Film Review: Calvary

Deirdre O’Neill & Mike Wayne review Calvary (directed by John Michael McDonagh, 2014)

Calvary is a widely misunderstood film. The conservative press have accused it of ‘nihilism’ (The Irish Times) while in The New Statesman Mark Lawson argued that it is indicative of popular culture’s inability to come to terms with the sexual abuse scandals of paedophile priests in the Catholic Church. ‘[P]aradoxically it approaches the subject through a protagonist who is a perfect advertisement for the clergy’ argues Lawson. Hardly, this is a film that uses the story and imagery of Christ and hurls it against the Catholic Church, it is a story shot through with values which Christianity holds dear and finds the institution that is supposed to embody those values, the Church, deeply wanting.

The film opens in the confessional where Father James Lavelle (Brendon Gleeson) is forewarned, like Christ, of his death, by a parishioner (who we do not see but who the priest knows). The parishioner tells Lavelle that he was sexually abused as a child by a priest. Tormented by this experience, and with the guilty priest now dead, the parishioner vows to exact revenge on the Church by killing Father Lavelle who he acknowledges is a good priest, in one week’s time. Lavelle is indeed a good man in a rotten institution. Like Christ, he is to die it seems, for the sins of others. What makes Gleeson’s character such an empathetic one, and one who might actually understand his flock’s problems, is that he had a life before taking to the cloth. He had a wife (who has died) a daughter (who has recently tried to commit suicide) and a history of alcoholism. Father James Lavelle’s problem is that he is in the wrong institution within which to do good work.

A number of reviewers have baulked at what they see as the film’s stereotypical depiction of the small community of Sligo and compared it, in a way that is meant to be unflattering, to the sit-com Father Ted. Indeed the film is a darker version of that brilliant satire, but whereas in Father Ted, the ineffectual and hapless priests are treated deferentially by the community, in Calvary, not only the sexual abuse scandal but also the economic crisis of the former ‘Celtic Tiger’, has evidently moved things on. Now the community regard the priests with indifference at best, remote from their lives and problems. At worst, the community are openly hostile to the clergy, both verbally and physically.

What the mainstream reviewers see as ‘stereotypes’ are in fact social types, assembled within a small community that concentrates the analytical power of the film, rendering in a microcosm the wider world we know. The script and great performances by the cast fill these types out with real human dimensions. Aidan Gillen is particularly good as a doctor who has no moral framework with which to cope with all the death and tragedy he has seen. Snorting coke is his coping mechanism. Neither religion, nor any other institution seems able to provide a way of coping with the death and violence that haunts the language, imagery and plot of the film at every turn. This is not ‘nihilism’ however, this is an acute sense of where Ireland is post the sexual and economic crisis.

The publican faces bankruptcy, the library has been shut down, the Lord of Manor is a corrupt ex-financier who, literally, will piss on anything. This is difficult territory and many reviewers have evidently found it hard to get a handle on the film.  Some have complained about the film’s ‘postmodern’ self-knowingness. But its self-reflexivity is purposeful, inviting, as it does, the viewer to reflect on their own position within a world where the established institutions are failing on a grand scale. This is a complex aesthetic response to this crisis, layered, thoughtful and alive to the contradictions of life.

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