Calvary starring Brendan Gleeson and directed by John Michael McDonagh is a movie serious Catholics must see. Largely overlooked when it was released in North America in August 2014, moviegoers who missed it in the theater now have a chance to see it on DVD.
The confessional is the tomb, and the confessed sinner, pushing back the curtain, is rising from the dead. It is one of the seven most mysterious things in the world, a place where debts are forgiven in a divinely generous economy of salvation. But for many of us it’s more of an obstacle to faith than the real presence in the Blessed Sacrament. We can more easily accept that we are brothers and sisters of Christ, and that Christ dwells within us, than that evil has been defeated and sins are forgiven. Clinging to our fallen natures we project indignation. We want blood, but we especially want it when there’s a reason to justify our blood lust.
What will grow from the rot and decay of the priestly sexual abuse scandal? Director John Michael McDonagh compared our capacity to process the problem with the long sorting out which followed the Vietnam War. He said it was about 10 years before they could begin making good movies about Vietnam.
Calvary begins in the confessional. “I’m going to kill you father … not because you’re guilty, but because you’re innocent. What good would it do to kill a guilty priest.”
Brendan Gleeson plays Fr. James Lavelle, an ancient mountain in collar and cassock with the gravity of stars and planets and the beating heart of a shepherd who smells like his sheep.
To see the trailer is to know the story and so there’s no need of a spoiler alert. It’s a movie of mood and texture. An unseen penitent, now a tormented adult, was abused by a priest as a child. But he is not making a confession, he is not seeking absolution, he is performing his own dark sacrament, preparing his own sacrificial offering. He has found an innocent priest whose blood will be worthy payment for the innocence taken in his childhood. Fr. James is told he has until a week Sunday to get his house in order and prepare for death. Then they are to meet on the beach and Fr. James will be killed.
Calvary is the place of Christ’s crucifixion, but every Catholic knows the agony begins in the garden. It is wrongly said that “the coward dies a thousand deaths”—instead the coward plots a thousand escapes, brokers a thousand compromises—it is the hero who looks straight ahead at what’s coming and does not run, but sweats drops of blood. The movie is a psychological thriller, but it is about a priest, that is, it is about an alter-Christus whose mission is to bring God to the people and the people to God. The job of the priest is essentially always the same, whether he has been told he will be killed a week Sunday or not. A priest is to offer sacrifice, and in a way to be the sacrifice, and so the psychological thriller is more about the tortured, conflicted souls of his people reaching for and recoiling from God and the pain Fr. James absorbs as Christ among his people. Fr. James is as timeless as only priests are timeless. All Catholics regularly trace the sign of the cross on themselves but a priest marks it out over the world in front of him. For a priest the cross is writ large.
Fiona is Fr. James’ daughter from an earlier marriage—beautiful and tragic, her wrists are freshly bandaged. Our children are the natural means through which we transcend and enter into the unbroken chain of being, and so the suicidal Fiona embodies the existential despair of the merely natural order. But Fiona is more than a metaphor and more than a type, and the movie is more than a brittle morality play. The broken characters in the story are revolting, but beyond their vice and violence and wrath in each of them there is something redeemed struggling to rise up.
Gleeson says about his character, “it seems we are finally getting past the anti-hero, and it is refreshing to have an honest hero again.” But Fr. James is not shiny and simple.
French literary critic Rene Girard explores the scapegoating motif as the means of resolving the estrangement and alienation we all feel. The first effect of Original Sin in Genesis 3 was that Adam and Eve knew they were naked and were ashamed, hiding themselves from God, from each other, and from true self-knowledge. Our insecurity is a persistent effect of Original Sin and our reflexive defense mechanism is scapegoating. We can feel secure and know that our nakedness is not exposed by building an alliance with another around the mocking of some third party in their nakedness. If we are joined together in attacking someone else, we will not be attacked by each other.
At a deeper level this also applies to the uncomfortable business of knowing one’s self and the easy but ultimately false resolution found through externalizing and transference. By pointing at others’ weaknesses we don’t have to look too closely at ourselves. The world is angry with the Church for her sins, but mostly it is angry at the Church because through that anger it does not have to look too closely at itself.
Fr. James seems to bring out the worst in his flock. He is a lightning rod because he is not a fake and he is not a coward and therefore he belies the caricature of the priesthood that has become so useful to the world. He is attacked and tormented by the conflicted as their demons rise and they are confronted by their true selves.
The sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Church and smeared filth on the priesthood is a demonic perfect storm. It has provided a feast for the spirit of the world and its meat grinder motif of transference and scapegoating. The spirit of the world has always hated the priesthood and hated the Church but has never felt more justified in its hatred than it does today. But the priesthood, like Christ, the High Priest who it imitates, is a sign of contradiction, and ultimately, the more wrathful the spirit of the world becomes, the more stark and dramatic and powerful will that sign of contradiction be.