The movie Calvary could have been drowned out by the million other options competing for your eyeballs this year. 2014 was a year for film that left many questioning about not just what makes a good movie, but how to even define what a movie is. Technology and changing tastes have brought with them new avenues for storytelling, ranging from crowdsourced indie projects to Youtube stars, and TV series that function more like 30-hour film productions rather than individual episodes. But even with all of this going on, sometimes the most impactful films are still those with a simple story, a standard run time, talented acting and some brilliant writing. That, in a nutshell, is Calvary.
Calvary is an Irish film written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, starring Brendan Gleeson. The film is a drama/dark comedy taking place in a small parish in the Irish countryside where everyone knows the local priest, Father James (Gleeson). The film begins in a Catholic confessional where a man in Father James’ congregation admits to having been sexually abused by a priest when he was a small child. For this reason, and because the perpetrator is already dead, the man says he intends to kill Father James the following Sunday. He also claims he is going to do this because Father James has done nothing wrong, and that killing a good priest would be much more sensational than killing a bad one. In a way he is implying that because he was an innocent child, the only way he can truly settle the score is by killing an innocent priest. This can also be seen in the trailer.
The rest of the story follows Father James as he does what he can to help those in his parish during what could be his final week on earth. During this time he has a series of ethical discussions and disputes with people in his congregation, ranging from the utterly tragic to the utterly hilarious. Most of the people he encounters are hardly pious practitioners of the Catholic faith; each one has their own unique reasons for disbelief, not only in God, but in any higher aspirations beyond their immediate existence. What is unique about this film–besides the fact that the cast includes Irish stars from Braveheart, Bridesmaids, and Game of Thrones– is that the good guy in this 21st century film is actually the priest. This is not something easily pulled off at a time when years of uncovered abuse and corruption scandals have continuously rocked the foundations of the Catholic faith, and really all religion in general. But Calvary comes through in spades.
Even though this film is, in many ways, about the idea of belief versus disbelief, it does not impose the idea that religion is necessarily a right or wrong answer. We aren’t even really sure if Father James believes in God. What we are sure of is that he is a flawed but fundamentally good person, and a good person whose efforts to help others are often hindered more than they are helped by his priestly position. As each member of his congregation ignores his advice, some going as far as to taunt Father James with unremorseful displays of sinful behavior in all forms, even the most atheistic viewers can’t help but feel bad for the well-intentioned priest. Many in his flock, besides being non-believers, are also just uninterested in any of the challenges that come with trying to be a better person. They are reluctant to face their own problems, and would rather use their disenchantment with Catholicism as a means of deflecting attempts by Father James to help them get past their most intimate problems. Conversely, the question is raised as to whether or not Father James has any right to even try and interfere with the details of other people’s lives.
Questions like “Is there a God” gradually begin to feel less and less relevant as the story progresses and the efforts by Father James to bring dignity and hope into his utterly disillusioned parish are, at best, only marginally successful. Eventually you see no God, no parish, no nasty Catholic history, but just a man who is trying to help other people in the only way that he knows how. It doesn’t sound like a terribly funny tale, but the ironies associated with the complexities of reality clashing with the contradictions that come with any moral code make for great dialogue and some brilliant one-liners.
Calvary is a very pertinent story in an era when much of the West is not just losing faith in religion, but in all big institutions — political, financial, and theocratic. Ireland in particular has been a country hard hit by the most negative side effects of everything from the financial crisis to malpractice in the Catholic Church. This is just one small part of what makes it a fantastic setting to investigate the themes of disillusionment and disbelief in today’s world. We learn from each character what they believe (or don’t), and how the landscapes of their lives have shaped their mindsets, many of which are arguably justified. Calvary is a brilliant piece of art that offers people a different way of looking at disbelief, not as something to be proud of, but as part of a greater struggle to create one’s own sense of meaning. It also brilliantly depicts how many of us are afraid to take responsibility for our own unhappiness, and how we would rather outsource meaning to institutions that we anticipate will fail us.
These are just a few of the many messages that one could interpret from Calvary, a truly first-class film that doesn’t try to dodge life’s little contradictions, but rather pokes at them with a dark, analytical sense of humor that is uniquely its own. Whatever tone each part of the film examines, from ironically light to painfully dark, this is one of the year’s most thoughtful looks at how we all try to reconcile our beliefs with our realities. In a time where it can easily feel as if every story has already been told, McDonagh has created something spectacularly original, and worth the time of anyone in need of a fresh look at life’s big questions.