3 Stars — Troubling
Calvary is advertised as a “wickedly funny comedy,” but you will hardly be laughing when you leave the theater. Written and directed by Ireland’s John Michael McDonagh, Calvary is a sobering look at life in the small Irish town of Sligo, and has about as much humor as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
The story surrounds the life of the parish priest, Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson), who hears a confession from someone who has suffered great sexual abuse as a small boy at the hands of a trusted priest. Unable to cope with his pain, he announces to Father Lavelle that he is going to murder him at the end of the week as retribution against the Catholic Church. Why Father Lavelle? It seems he was chosen because he is the only “good man” in the town, and murdering a good man will make a bigger headline than a story too often told about a bad priest.
In Father Lavelle’s world, there are not a lot of good and gracious souls. Ironically, the two who show up include his daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), from his marriage prior to becoming a priest. Lavelle entered the priesthood after his wife died, believing that God had given him the one true love in his life and after her passing he felt called to focus on helping others rather than himself.
The second minor good character is the widow of a tourist who dies while on vacation in this rural outpost of Ireland. Even though she is grieving, she exhibits a caring and compassionate inner being that is a refreshing contrast to those who call Sligo home.
More than a comedy, this “who done it” mystery takes us on a journey through the lives of bartenders, adulterers, alcoholics, simple townsfolk and bad clergymen — all of whom show the desperation in their lives that could lead them to be a murderer. In the confessional, the real murderer gave Father Lavelle “until Sunday” to get his affairs in order. Each day during the week we witness troubled lives. We also wonder if there is anyone good that actually lives in Sligo? Is there not a least one person who has “been saved” from a life of despair through their faith in Christ?
While a premeditated murder may be a vastly sobering thing to face, it is not the only evil to visit Father Lavelle in the last week of his life. His church is torched by an arsonist and his dog has his throat slit. His fellow priests who learn of his threat are about as much spiritual help as the town bartender, and the police seem to be impotent. In the end, the only decision that Father Lavelle has to make is whether he is going to remove himself from this evil place and run, or whether he is going to stay and live a life of integrity and honesty. The answer won’t leave you laughing.
Stories about the Catholic Church and its impact on Irish life often tell a troubled tale. Even so, the message of Christ is one that transcends the sins of the church. In fact, it is the amazing grace of the Christian message that has often transformed an outwardly wicked world. That is what is most troubling about Calvary. It is a place where no one seems to care. If there was ever a description of a place left behind after the rapture where all the good people were removed, then Sligo might be the poster child.
Redemption is only alluded to at the end of the story, when Father Lavelle’s daughter goes to visit the man in prison who made the confession that led to his desire to murder her father. While the story doesn’t let us in on what happens next, her reaching out to this tortured soul gives us a glimpse of one good and generous life influenced by the message that Father Lavelle came to give. It may be a candle in a very dim world, but it only takes a small light to vanquish the darkness of evil.
» In a world populated by both good and bad, why do you think this film leaves this town so void of goodness? Is that for dramatic effect or do you think McDonagh sees mostly the darkness?
» It is difficult to imagine the pain an abused person experiences when it is the very person who is supposed to protect and care for him. Have you experienced harm from a person who was supposed to help you? How did you respond?
» Ireland has had a long history of warring madness. Often seen as a “religious war," do you believe this to be true or only the designations of the two groups? How do you think humans change the message of Jesus’ love of the enemy for such hatred?
— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.