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Good priest walks the ruins of the sex abuse crisis

  • 03 July 2014

Calvary (MA). Director: John Michael McDonagh. Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O'Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aiden Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach De Bankolé, M. Emmet Walsh, Orla O'Rourke. 100 minutes

Calvary begins with a threat. Ensconced in the anonymity of the confessional, a man who has suffered injustice at the hands of the Church informs the priest, Fr James Lavelle (Gleeson), that he plans to kill him. Not because Lavelle has committed any wrong — quite the opposite. He has been singled out because he is 'a good priest', to pay the price for the sins of his brethren.

During the week leading up to the deadline set by his would-be killer, Lavelle goes about his pastoral duties within his windswept seaside parish. The ominously titled Calvary traces these earnest ramblings, which are as much a part of a personal pilgrimage — a 'setting in order of his house', as suggested by the killer — as a continuation of clerical duty.

He counsels a young man who is angered that he is denied the affections of women. He mediates a domestic violence situation involving affable butcher Jack (O'Dowd), his unfaithful wife Veronica (O'Rourke), and her lover, Simon (De Bankolé), an ill-tempered mechanic from the Ivory Coast. He resists the request of an elderly writer (Walsh) to acquire a gun, for the purposes of self-euthanasia.

He also endures the condescension of wealthy blue-blood Michael (Moran), and the more hostile slights heaped upon him in the local tavern by, among others, snidely atheistic doctor Frank (Gillen). Amidst these other trials he attempts to reconnect with his estranged daughter Fiona (Reilly), who feels that his decision to join the priesthood after the death of her mother was a kind of abandonment.

Lavelle is a good priest, and generally a decent, if flawed, man. He goes about this work patiently, for the most part. At one point he is accused of being judgmental; he retorts that yes, he is, but he tries not to be. Against the weight of such general disdain, and in the knowledge that any of these men that he encounters could be the one who plans to kill him, to strive to be good nonetheless is noble in itself.

It is hard to miss the biblical connotations both of the film's title, Calvary — named for the site of Christ's crucifixion — and of the threat levelled against Lavelle. This 'good priest' is a Christ figure, innocent, but marked for death as a scapegoat