By Jonathan Stoner on February 09, 2014

Calvary, the second film from writer/director, John Michael McDonagh, finds a unique and effective way to deal with the horror of the Catholic sex abuse scandals in Ireland. Instead of making a polemic denouncing the priesthood and the Catholic Church, McDonagh makes an interesting choice to focus on the redemptive suffering of a good priest bearing the weight of the sins of the Church and his small seaside community.

Brendan Gleeson (Braveheart, In Bruges), plays the role of Father James, a soulful, sharp witted, and bighearted teddy bear of a man, whose weighty presence serves as the anchor of this alternately black comedy and heart-wrenching drama. This slow burner did not win me over right away but as I have reflected on it in the weeks following Sundance, I find that this film continues to haunt the darkened corridors of my mind more so than any of the other films I saw at the festival.

The film begins on an ominous note in a confession booth where an unseen parishioner informs Father James that he plans to kill him in retaliation for the sins of another priest who repeatedly molested him as a young boy and can no longer answer for his crimes since he died years earlier. Father James is given a week to get his affairs in order before his executioner comes for him. During the course of the ensuing week, the priest tries to make amends with his estranged daughter (he is a widower who joined the priesthood after his wife died) and continues patiently shepherding his flock of lost sheep who treat him with a mixture of flippancy, disdain and, in some cases, outright aggression.

One particularly painful scene depicts an overprotective father hurling accusations and curses at the priest after discovering him speaking to his daughter who he came across as she was walking alone on a deserted country road. Here we see a picture of the Irish people who, by and large, have become disillusioned with God and deeply suspicious of the Catholic Church due to the egregious conduct of some of their spiritual leaders.

As if witnessing firsthand the destructiveness of sectarianism with Christians both Protestant and Catholic spilling one another's blood for centuries was not enough to make the people of Ireland lose faith in Christianity. Now in the 21st century, Irish Catholics have experienced a mortal blow to their already fragile faith by not only having some of their priests - who they were taught to put on pedestals high above mortal men and women – be exposed as sexual predators preying on their children, but then to make matters worse the Church hierarchy covered up for these wolves in sheep’s clothing. You can practically feel the barely contained rage simmering just below the surface of many of the characters, which is an understandable response to the horrendous betrayal of the childlike trust that they placed in the Church.

The persecution Father James experiences from his flock is as undeserved as the horrific abuses that children in his parish and in parishes scattered across the country suffered at the hands of men of the cloth they were entrusted to. Even though he does not deserve to be lumped in with these rotten apples, he has embraced his priestly vocation which means he is willing to obediently take up his cross and put one foot in front of the other toward whatever fate awaits him.

At one point the local pub owner, out of a mixture of pity and frustration, informs the priest that he is just an old relic of a former time and that there is no longer any place for his kind or his beliefs in the village or anywhere else in Ireland. Like “The Suffering Servant” in Isaiah 53, Father James is both “despised and rejected” by the ones he has dedicated his life to serving and it seems that it is all happening according to God’s plan. As should be obvious from the title, he is clearly a Christ figure in this allegorical tale that calls to mind Caiaphas' words about Jesus in John chapter 11, "You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish."

The questions facing Father James (and the audience) are myriad: Will his death bring about good in the lives of his parishioners? More importantly, will it bring his fractured flock closer to God and each other or does it symbolize the final nail in the coffin for a Christian faith that has outstayed its welcome and it's usefulness in the lives of the people of this small town, not to mention the "whole nation"? The movie is somewhat ambiguous on this point and leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether the conclusion of the film is hopeful or not. As the director said in the Q&A, unlike a Hollywood movie ending, his movie is not interested in telling you what to think.

So here's my read, according to the Catholic theology of suffering which is grounded in the writings of St. Paul, God allows Christians to suffer so that they can "experience the fellowship of sharing in Christ's sufferings" and "complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, that is, the Church." What makes Father James' suffering redemptive is that it is a way for him to do penance for his own sins and the sins of those who are unwilling or unable to do penance for themselves. His willingness to accept the cup of suffering he is presented with is a conscious choice on his part to "offer up" his suffering to God where it is mysteriously and miraculously joined to the pain Christ endured on the cross for the people of his parish and for all of humanity. When seen through a Catholic lens, the priest's suffering is no longer meaningless and a tragic tale becomes a transformative encounter for the characters and for us as an audience with the amazing grace of God.

Throughout the film there are gorgeous aerial shots of Ireland's verdant hills, green valleys and rocky outcroppings battered by salty waves juxtaposed with scenes of floundering human beings, made in the image of God, who are drowning in a sea of bitterness and despair. Whether focusing on the sins and the painful existences of the characters or the irresistible allure of the rugged, unforgiving landscape, the film presents a portrait of the terrible beauty of Ireland and the Irish people in a manner that is always compelling.

One of the last scenes of the film brings together all of these elements, it features a telephone conversation between the priest and his daughter - both in picturesque locations - about how too much attention is often given to sins while not enough attention is given to hard-won virtues like forgiveness. The final image of the film is a picture of forgiveness in the face of an unforgivable act, which reminded me of these lines of dialogue from another great writer-director, Paul Thomas Anderson, "You can forgive someone. Well, that's the tough part. What can we forgive?" The filmmakers don't provide an easy answer to this question because, I think, they recognize that forgiveness is difficult and just because you forgive it doesn't mean the past is or ever should be forgotten. The film's creators want to ensure that we as the audience never forget the lasting psychological, emotional, and spiritual damage that has been done to the victims of sexual abuse at the hands of the Catholic clergy.

In the aftermath of these catastrophic events, the spiritual and religious destiny of Ireland remains uncertain – recently the nation severed diplomatic ties with the Vatican – but the filmmaker’s seem to affirm that the only way for the people to move towards wholeness and healing is through the Christian virtue of costly forgiveness. And still the question left hanging in the air at the end is, “What can we forgive?”

About the Author: Jonathan Stoner
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