Film Review: Calvary

Calvary is a gem of a film.  For starters, it has the eminently watchable Brendan Gleeson as its star, portraying the linchpin of the film, Father James Lavelle.  It also benefits from a wonderfully intelligent script by John Michael McDonagh who adeptly deals with complex issues with a great deal of humour and manages to tell an absorbing story, peopled with a myriad of interesting characters.  The film also comes across as unashamedly Irish and is all the better for it.

You know you’re in for a treat of a film from the opening scene which is a master class in exposition.  We first see Father Lavelle, sitting in the confessional, his face in close up as he listens to one of his parishioners inform him that he plans to kill him Sunday week, as retribution for his years of suffering as a victim of a paedophile priest.  The sting in the tail is that the parishioner has chosen Father Lavelle precisely because he has done no wrong.  As the would-be assailant points out, there is no point in killing a bad priest; it’s killing a good one that will cause shockwaves.  Unfortunately for Father Lavelle, it would seem he has the misfortune of being a good priest in an Ireland which now seems to hold in sheer contempt both religion and above all the institution that Father Lavelle represents, the Catholic Church.

In the course of the film we learn that Father Lavelle had finally followed his vocation to become a priest after the death of his wife, leaving his only child, Fiona, in London.  Father Lavelle is a no nonsense priest who takes his duties seriously and sincerely wants to help his parishioners.   He’s in stark contrast to the other clergymen depicted in the film who come across more as corporate men in yet another big corporation, or to use Father Lavelle’s phrase as an “accountant in an insurance firm” lacking integrity.   However such dedication as Father Lavelle’s comes at a price, a price it would seem his daughter Fiona has paid the most, having felt abandoned first by her mother’s death and then by her father leaving to become a priest in Ireland.  Fiona’s emotional turmoil is made clear when Fiona returns to visit her father following an unsuccessful attempt to commit suicide.

As someone who’s not Irish, for me the film also provides an interesting snapshot of Irish life.  There is the corrupt policeman who made the mistake of trying to arrest a paedophile priest back in the day and paid the price by getting transferred to the sticks.  The rich, obnoxious and corrupt financier Michael Fitzgerald,  facing possible charges for “irregularities”, he consoles  himself that if they arrest him they would have to charge half the financiers in Ireland  along with half the bank managers, not to mention a few members of the government.   There is the pub landlord whose pub is in the process of being repossessed, the damaged young man, Leo, now working as a prostitute and who seems to have been yet one more victim of a paedophile priest.  And then of course there is the Catholic Church.   Its place in Irish society, which once seemed unassailable, now totally vilified.   In the film Father Lavelle is beaten up, ridiculed and disrespected.  Bumping into a young child, he starts up an innocent conversation with her and is met with unadulterated hostility by a father, incandescent with fury that some strange priest is talking to her.

The film deals with themes such as death, suicide, murder, sacrifice, guilt, forgiveness and the unjust nature and randomness of the world we live in.  The genius of the film is the sheer dexterity with which John Michael McDonagh imbues the film with such complex ideas.  In fact the film is so rich, any detailed review is in danger of ending up as some kind of treatise. There’s the painting that Michael Fitzgerald pisses on for example. It’s not just any painting.  It is in fact a famous painting by Holbein called The Ambassadors.  (In reality it hangs in the National Gallery in London and is well worth a viewing). The painting features two ambassadors richly dressed, surrounded by numerous objects indicating their wealth and their knowledge.  At the bottom of the painting there seems to be an odd white like shape.  However looked at from a certain angle this shape morphs into a human skull, presumably showing that underlying life is death even if, as in the painting, it’s often distorted from our view, and regardless of any wealth or knowledge we may acquire in life, death is waiting for all of us.  It’s little touches like this that help make the film such a treat to watch,

The various themes of the movie are neatly brought together as we watch Father Lavelle decide how he should react to his life being threatened.  Should he act at all?  Is it right to kill, even in self-defence? Should he inform the police?  Should he keep his rendezvous with his would-be murderer?  Should he face his Calvary and atone for the sins of other priests with his life? And such atonement, though it may be considered noble by some, would it serve any real purpose; isn’t it, when all said and done, to acquiesce and meet your death in this way just another form of suicide?  A course of action which Father Lavelle chastises Fiona for.  Where in fact does the demarcation line fall between self-sacrifice and suicide?  As Fiona notes, depending on your point of view, you might, like the Japanese writer she mentions, even include Jesus on a list of famous suicides.

Then there is the question of murder, whether it be the possible murder by the priest’s would-be killer, to Freddie Joyce, the serial killer Father Lavelle visits in prison to the young man Milo who, in a brilliantly written scene, decides he has two choices in life – suicide or to join the army.  Not surprisingly Father Lavelle feels there are more options in life and points out that the bible says ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ and does not then go on to provide a list of exceptions.

Death permeates the film, pinpointing the utter randomness of its nature.  Not only exemplified by Father Lavelle being targeted for execution for no other reason than he is a good priest but also in the case of the visiting French tourists, caught up in a fatal car crash.  The wife is unscathed.  The husband is fatally injured.  The vicissitudes of fate which the French woman seems to stoically accept.  And while the teenagers from the crash lie in the morgue, the aged American writer lives on, even asking Father Lavelle to get him a gun so he can kill himself before he becomes so old, he’s decrepit.

Not surprisingly in a film dealing with the Catholic Church there is also the question of guilt.  As the corrupt financier points out there is no punishment for a man like himself.  There is no punishment for the guilty.  It’s the innocent who pay.  While he can afford to piss (literally) on great works of art, it’s the little people like the pub landlord who lose their properties, and who feel abandoned by a rich Catholic Church, with its history of anti-Semitism and collaboration with the Nazis, and which refuses to speak against the bankers who brought Ireland to its knees.  And it is good priests like Father Lavelle who pay the price for this church whose reputation is in tatters.  It would seem then that the Catholic Church is facing its own Calvary, and it is good priests such as Father Lavelle who get caught up in the crossfire.

Thankfully then with such heavy themes, the film is written with such intelligence and wit and has such a fine actor as Brendan Gleeson in the lead role.  So if you’re on the hunt for a well-written, well-acted, thought-provoking, intelligent movie, populated with some great characters, a massive dollop of humour, and a fantastic lead actor then Calvary is the film for you.

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One Comment

  1. Excellent review of a truly under-appreciated film…. thanks for bringing it back to peoples’ attention with your perceptive review. What makes it so special, as you say, is how this film “deals with themes such as death, suicide, murder, sacrifice, guilt, forgiveness and the unjust nature and randomness of the world we live in” — and does so in an entertaining and subtle way.

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