Calvary is a very timely film for a world enraged and enraptured by the wave of scandals that have engulfed the Church. But rather than be consumed by these tragedies, this film puts a strong case for the majority of Christians caught up in these failings, without ever resorting to pleading.
Calvary’s story centres on Father James Lavelle, the down-to-earth pastor of an Irish village in Ireland’s County Sligo. Brendan Gleeson provides a pitch-perfect performance as a man who’s come late to the collar after his wife died. His fine mix of humour, faith and blunt wisdom is the right medicine for a community pockmarked with the saddest small town sins. But Father Lavelle time in the confessional is interrupted one morning by a confronting admission. An unknown figure tells James he was repeatedly raped as a seven-year-old boy by a now dead priest. But he’s not looking for help or justice, just the chance to shake the world and the church out of their lassitude:
Confessor: “I’m going to kill you Father. I’m going to kill you because you’re innocent. I’m going to kill you because you’ve done nothing wrong. Not right now though. I’ll give you time to get your house in order. Sunday week? Meet me down on the beach. You’ve nothing to say to me Father?”
Lavelle: “I’m sure I’ll think of something by Sunday week.”
Calvary is actually full of darkly comic moments like that, but the content is very mature as is the earthy language that the villagers use. But none of this obscures the real purpose of the film. Knowing he’s going to die, can a representative of the church actually walk the path Jesus has mapped out for him? So Father Lavelle counts off the seven days by continuing to tend to the needs of his flock. They’re a sad bunch of adulterers, atheists, wife beaters and hedonists – even an imprisoned serial killer – who don’t see themselves in any need of salvation. In fact one tells Father Lavelle that he’s a relic who doesn’t realize his time is gone. But Gleeson presents us with a hardheaded curate of souls who won’t stand for woolly thinking, nor the idea that anyone is beyond redemption.
Of course, as the audience, we’re completely unaware of which of those messed up characters actually plans to meet the good Father at the end of the week. But what does become clear is the way Father Lavelle’s life parallels his Lord’s. During those seven days he faces challenging questions from his daughter Fiona and is mocked by the worldly wise. As his days run out he’s abandoned by a fellow priest and experiences a dark night of the soul that looks like costing him his faith. What follows are moments of intense loss and a savage beating that culminate in a lonely walk to the site of his execution. How his passion week finishes is well worth the price of admission, as is the picture Calvary gives of real man of faith.
It’s not the crimes of the child molester that are on trial here, nor the multitude of other failings that might be laid at the Church’s door. In reality it’s whether Jesus and his teachings have any relevance to this modern world. Can Father Lavelle trust them to his dying day? What emerges is a determination to offer the grace of God to sinners and the self-righteous. They may be able to list the Church’s shortcomings, but Father Lavelle knows they have at least one of their own:
Lavelle: “I think there’s too much talk about sins and not enough about virtues.”
Fiona: “What would be your number one?”
Lavelle: “I think forgiveness is highly underrated.”
Calvary is a film about the need for faith to shape our lives it is to be of any value at all. It also sensitively underlines our own failures to find happiness apart from God. If it has a weakness it’s that Father Lavelle tends to edge Jesus out of the picture. But at least it stands firmly for a faith in God that continues to weather every storm the world can hurl.
Distributor: Transmission Films
Release Date: July 3, 2014