Calvary is a film about a good priest sentenced to die by a disgruntled parishioner who was sexually abused by a bad priest as a child. The would-be assassin tells the priest, Father James (Brendan Gleeson at his very best, which is saying something, because Gleeson is one of the very best we have), during confession that he intends to shoot him in a week down on the beach outside of town, if he would show up there at that time, please. Calvary follows Father James through the intervening week as he continues his priestly rounds and decides privately what to do.
Father James is attacked throughout the week as well, though the attacks are more spiritual, philosophical, and emotional than they are physical. Each person he visits levels accusations against the God and the church Father James represents, and each person’s accusations are different, though they will not be unfamiliar to anyone involved in honest relationship with other people: There is great suffering in the world. The church is full of self-righteous hypocrites. People commit acts of unspeakable evil. Sexual ethics are nothing but a form of institutional control. God is silent. Greed wins. Everything is meaningless.
To Calvary‘s great credit, it presents these ideologies in their most rational, weighty form. Yes, the characters may be representatives of certain theological complaints—the film is delightfully self-aware about this fact—but the actors portraying these symbols are so good, they imbue these emblems with real personality. Other films would be content to make these characters into cliches. Calvary allows them to be human.
Father James is a complex man as well. He knows not to offer answers when he has none. He knows how to say, “I don’t know, but I’m still here.” More than anything else, he knows part of his job as a minister is to absorb his parishioners attacks without responding violently in return, that part of what it means to be a representative of Christ in this community is to let the people stone him if that’s what they want to do. All the while, he holds up the hope he has found and tries to pass it along to them.
One of my favorite aspects of Calvary is that Father James’ faith is rooted in the loss of his wife. We learn Father James donned his soutane after his wife died, leaving his adult daughter behind in the process. The relationship between Father James and his daughter is unabashedly sentimental (and essential to the film’s breathtaking conclusion), and it reveals Father James’ own brokenness. Religious devotion of the best kind is often birthed by an experience of loss, and that genesis doesn’t make the devotion any less real. It just means that the hurting, religious person still has some healing to do—don’t we all?—and that `newborn faith is often stronger and more mature on the other side of the grieving process.
There is still more to love about this film—its “High Noon” structure and “Searchers” cinematography, it’s Hitchcockian tone, the way it swings between classic, Capra-esque sentimentality and black, Coen-esque comedy. Brendan Gleeson, as I said before, is unbelievably good as Father James, but Kellly Reilly’s “Fiona” is also integral to the film, and Reilly’s performance grants the character a depth of sadness and love that really sells the film’s ending. Finally, Calvary includes a few of the most harrowing and heartbreaking scenes you are likely to see in a film this year. Watch especially for the scenes Gleeson shares with his real-life son, Domhnall Gleeson, with Marie-Josée Croze, and with little Anabel Sweeney.
I cannot imagine I will see a film this year that I will recommend more highly than Calvary. I particularly believe that every pastor and pastor-in-training should see it. Not since Of Gods and Men have I seen a film that takes as seriously the role of a minister, the Church, and practical spirituality in society, and I’ve never seen a film treat those things as favorably while being as entertaining and cinematically astute.
Week after week after week, we review films here. If you read our reviews regularly, I imagine you are the kind of person who looks to be informed spiritually by the films you see, the kind of person who looks for God at the movies. You don’t have to look very hard in Calvary, and after you see Christ exemplified there, you’ll better be able to see Christ in your everyday life, and you’ll better know how to interact with an at-times antagonistic but always hurting world. “Calvary” is more than the film’s title. It’s a place, an event, and a way to love the world as God so loves it.