The Life of an Irish Priest as a Metaphor for the Church
The year 2014 is already the best year of the century for independent films. My favorite of the year so far (in spite of how much I loved Richard Linklater’s Boyhood) is a small Irish film called Calvary.
If we think of Father James’ life as a metaphor for the church, we are offered a wise reflection on how the entire church might wrestle with its own faithfulness to Jesus in the 21st century, a time when the church is often viewed as an enemy to society.
Calvary was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, whose only previous film was The Guard, made in 2011. The Guard, also an excellent film, was a dark comedy. Calvary is likewise advertised as a dark comedy, but it is a very different kind of film. I would categorize it as a drama with many funny moments and one scene of graphic violence.
Calvary stars Brendan Gleeson, in a flawless, Oscar-worthy performance, as Father James, a small-town priest who seems to be losing the respect of his parishioners on an almost daily basis. Father James does his best to help those around him, but he is seen as the face of a church that no longer seems relevant and, indeed, is viewed as corrupt, perhaps even evil. Shouldering the blame for all that’s wrong with the church is not easy, especially when Father James is told he has only eight days to live before one of his parishioners kills him for crimes committed by his predecessors.
Calvary tells the story of those eight days in the life of Father James, eight days which are made more intense by the visit of his adult daughter, Fiona (born before he went into the priesthood), who has recently attempted suicide. Fiona is played very well by Kelly Reilly, who stands out amongst a great ensemble of co-stars playing the parishioners Father James interacts with during those eight days (including Chris O’Dowd, M. Emmet Walsh, Isaach De Bankolé, Aiden Gillen, Dylan Moran, Marie-Josée Croze, David Wilmot, Gary Lydon, and Orla O’Rourke).
The cinematography is stunning, providing a wonderful location feel for a village on the Irish coast, the screenplay is intelligent and subtle, the direction is perfectly paced, and the quiet score is there when needed. There are beautiful, touching moments, light moments, funny moments, and many very dark moments during the eight days presented in Calvary, and not one moment is out of place. Along the way, there are also many profound and revealing scenes about the current state of the Roman Catholic Church and about the future of the church in general. For those of us who work for the church (indeed, for all who are part of a church), these observations provide much food for thought.
But the real highlight of Calvary has yet to be mentioned. Father James is in almost every scene and we are presented with an in-depth glimpse into his life and thoughts as he contemplates his response to the threat he has received. Here is where the masterful screenplay shines most brightly. If it referred only to the life and thought of a lonely Irish priest, it would still be great, for we get that rare cinematic figure who honestly and profoundly wrestles with what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus.
But we get much more than that. If we think of Father James’ life as a metaphor for the church, we are offered a wise reflection on how the entire church might wrestle with its own faithfulness to Jesus in the 21st century, a time when the church is often viewed as an enemy to society. Do we desperately defend ourselves against all attacks, whether they are physical or spiritual? Do we muster our forces for a pre-emptive counter-attack? Do we run away and hide? Or is there another way?
If I was not so hesitant to reveal more of the plot than I have revealed thus far, I would share some of the film’s many profound insights here. Instead, I will just say that one of the themes in Calvary is forgiveness. Earlier this year, The Railway Man explored this theme in a powerful but overly contrived way. Calvary’s exploration of the theme is nothing short of sublime.
Calvary is filmmaking at its finest. If you can handle the language and a scene of graphic violence, don’t miss a chance to see this marvellous and gorgeous film on the big screen.
Calvary is rated R for sexual references, language, brief strong violence, and some drug use.