thoughts on CALVARY (a film review)

It is strange, given how important faith in God is to so many of us, how few movies there are that deal with it in an intelligent, thoughtful way.

This is not, I think, because Hollywood has some sort of hidden agenda against exploring these issues, but rather because it is a difficult thing to do well - to wrestle with faith in a way that takes it seriously, without ignoring the faults and foibles of the people who practice it.

Mockery is easy. Nuance is hard.

Which is why John Michael McDonough's new film CALVARY is such a welcome addition to the world's film library. This thoughtful Irish film is a significant departure for McDonough, whose previous movie THE GUARD featured a corrupt(ish) cop who pairs up with an FBI agent to investigate an international drug-smuggling ring.

CALVARY is uncomfortable and imperfect, but it's also very intelligent. It does what all good art does by starting with questions and exploring them into bigger questions, leaving you not with a sense of having resolved everything, but simply of having dug deep into the marrow of life. Truths are told in a way that forces you to confront your own questions about faith, doubt, God, and the Church.

Father James is a good priest. 

The movie begins with him in the confessional, as one of his parishioners tells him that in a week, he's going to kill him. Not because he's a bad priest (the sort of priest with whom this would-be murderer has had a great deal of experience), but because he's a good one - an innocent one.

It's a fantastic hook with which to begin a movie - opening with that Agatha Christie "Who's gonna do it and why?" question, and then leaving you to your questions as you follow Father James through his week in a village full of troubled, human people.

Will this good man die?
What is a good man?
Can a priest be a good man?
How important is faith, and does it really matter what we believe?
If there is a God, how can that God be thought of as good, given all the evil in the world and all the corruption in the Church?

No simple questions, these, and so there are no simple answers. 

Yet the movie does offer a guide for how to approach the struggle, as it shows Father James dealing with the humanity of his parishioners in a way that is deeply human. In his wisdom, he sees their foibles and - even without always understanding them - he offers kindness and compassion, free of any sort of judgment. He has opinions on the right or wrongness of their actions, but he generally doesn't feel the need to express these opinions out loud (with the notable exception of the times in which he's speaking out against those who abuse their positions of power and influence).

It is likely that the more conservative-minded among us will find his approach offensive. How can he just sit by without pronouncing some kind of judgment on the sins of the people in his church, they might ask? But as Father James so aptly puts it, it's not actually his Church. The Church to which he has a vocation belongs to a God of grace and forgiveness. And while there are no great answers or apologies that Father James (or I) can give to the justifiable accusations against that Church, there is nonetheless that still, small voice, drawing us back again and again to restoration and healing and hope.

Father James is a good man, as far as men go, but he is not a perfect one. What makes him good is his kindness, compassion, and wisdom as he walks his own via dolorosa - the path to his own Calvary.

It is not, as I have said, a perfect movie.

McDonough perhaps falls victim to the same Oscar-Wildean foible as his equally-talented filmmaker brother Martin (IN BRUGES, SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS) of making nearly all the characters equally intelligent and witty, so that the film can at times feel like a long succession of clever quips. They're brilliantly entertaining, but ultimately the mono-tonality of it can grow a little heavy. Furthermore, there are aspects of the plotting that strain credulity in a way you don't really like to see in a drama. For example, the idea that Father James would react as he does to a murder threat from a known aggressor seems a little, well, inhuman.

But we do not go to the movies for perfection, and it seems to me that the film's virtues far outweigh any complaints that might be raised. It is a good movie by any standard: innovative, gorgeously-shot, thoughtful, well-acted, entertaining, and intricately plotted.

If you're interested in a dark comedy that digs deep into tough, important questions, then I suggest you give CALVARY a try.

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If you do watch and enjoy CALVARY, here are a few other faith-exploring movies you will likely find interesting and moving, as well:


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NOTE: Today's post is brought to you courtesy of my awesome (and awesomely tall) cousin, Darren, who took advantage of an opportunity I like to call "Boss Josh Around!" 

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  1. Well done Josh - a fine rental of your skills and insights I have made. [Spoiler Warning] While I absolutely loved this film, I had a similar reaction to some of the plot devices, wondering why Father James would not react differently to his threatening accuser, and also seeing some of the characters as somewhat caricatures of several particular different ways of being with different reasons to feel hostility to the church in general. What I loved was how Father James moved past their various hostilities and accusations without being dismissive, but by incisively getting to the heart of an issue and graciously offering guidance to even the cruelest accusers among them - very Christ-like. Father James, being a Christ figure in the film, was condemned to die for the sins of the church and I think this narrative explains why he reacted so unhumanly to the man (whom he knew) threatening his life. He carried on with his mission to these people, even with the spectre of his own murder looming, and he did it mostly with compassion and acceptance with a few well placed shots when needed to cut through the bs. He experienced his Gethsemane moment at the airport, and ultimately seemed to accept his fate as almost necessary as he went back to face it. I think the difficulty in seeing the humanness in Jesus as he willingly chose to stay and face what came is what the screenwriter here faced in portraying the "unhumanness" of Father James committment to his parishioners and to his ethic of love and forgiveness over all else. These attributes actually demonstrate to us how to truly be human, but are so uncommon we see them as unhuman. I felt like the movie was a picture of Christ in contrast to the church. So many people have a solid grievance against the church and every reason to hate everything to do with it, and yet, here is this person who seems to represent the church, but is so much more. People in the parish heaped the scorn on Father James (some with more subtlety than others) for the sins of the church, sins that Father James ultimately died for, but he transcended the accusations by his life of service and ethics of love and forgiveness - and even his most ardent accusers could see the difference even if they didn't want to.

    Thanks for writing this Josh, I really enjoy reading your stuff and am confident that someday because of you, the Barkey name will be a little less odd and obscure.

    1. Great thoughts, Darren. I should've let YOU write the post :-)

      Embarrassing truth: I hadn't quite made the mental connection to the thematic centrality of Father James as Christ-figure. I'd allowed that to shade my experience, yes, but I'd not quite focused in on it. When I think about the film in that way, it becomes yet another reminder of why I'm so fond of Jesus... and why those who are deeply invested in power structures would rather hold another Inquisition for him, a-la-Dostoevsky.

      While I hope I don't end up following Father James to such an end, perhaps his example will color the way I live forward into my life, writing and otherwise.

  2. I just saw the film so I'm coming late to this post, Josh, so thanks for posting on my blog to bring me here. I echo Darren's thoughts.

    [Spoiler alert]

    I saw atonement themes in the final moments of the movie, the death of an innocent man to atone for sins, even the sins of his killer. That's huge for me. How was Jack--both victim and killer--going to be saved?

    In a wonderful display of Christian atonement theology, Father James, an innocent man, gives his life to atone for the sins of the guilty, not just for the guilt of bad priests but also the guilt of his killer.

    1. Agreed. And I especially like the way his sacrifice doesn't make a lot of sense. Confounding the wise, eh? :-)


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