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Good priest walks the ruins of the sex abuse crisis


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 for the guilty. Unsurprisingly he has forgiveness on his mind. But often forgiveness is not something to be given or received lightly.

The sexual abuse crisis that brought disgrace upon the Irish Church hangs over all of these proceedings. The killer's reason for wanting to inflict violence is that he was, as a child, a victim of abuse that went unpunished. Lavelle is liked but not respected by his parishioners, despite the centrality of the Church to the life of their community. Amid the ruins left by the crisis he carries little moral authority.

Calvary is a cerebral film about this emotional but also deeply moral issue. It suffers for it. The characters are virtual 'types' or, at best, sketches, who exist to provide a perspective on a raft of issues (mortality, sexuality, wealth) that are canvassed within the context of the post-abuse crisis. It is a tragic reflection on the diminished authority of the Church in conversations about these issues.

But structurally it is a mess, and its ability to engage the head but not the heart is alienating. It is not helped in this regard by an overbearing score that seems to have been tasked with doing all of the emotional heavy lifting that the script neglects. If it seeks to give voice to victims, affirm their feelings of injustice or offer them catharsis, its cold detachment from a sense of basic humanity undermines this goal.

It is rescued in large part by a tour-de-force performance by Gleeson as Lavelle, who is warm and complex and refreshingly lacking in moral certitude. What's more he is a man who has wept for the death of a pet but not, by his own admission, for the victims of abuse. While he is a good man, a good priest, and not himself an abuser, in his silence and disinterest he is still a part of the problem. A truth he may learn too late.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Calvary, John Michael McDonagh, Brendan Gleeson, Chris O'Dowd, Aiden Gillen, Dylan Moran



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Existing comments

An excellent review Tim. This is one film I am determined to see.

Edward Fido | 03 July 2014  

Many people abused as kids by priests and other church insiders will never have a chance to have their voice heard, I am one....its all too long ago too far away and too stressful and most offenders are now dead...so I got on with my life but have never trusted anyone in authority ....especially where there is no accountability

Annette Cullen | 03 July 2014  

In the theatre where we saw the film Calvary something unusual happened at its ending. While the credits rolled the audience remained seated in total silence. None spoke until we had gathered in the foyer. Unlike Tim who judged the film to be ‘cerebral’ and even ‘alienating’ in its ‘cold detachment’ we were deeply moved , too emotional to speak for a while. Then we talked. There was so much to discuss, so many questions to ask. What about the younger priest who was said to lack ‘integrity’, did he ? And the policeman who was sent to remote country Sligo for unveiling a clerical sex abuse in his city post; was he unjustly treated? And did those airport workers casually chatting over the coffin containing the poor woman’s husband remind you of Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts about the place of someone else’s suffering while the remainder of the world continues walking dully along.? Was the brooding Irish landscape enhanced by the sombre background musical score? Was the priest’s bishop correct in advising that what he had heard was not covered by the seal of confession.? So many questions. So much to ponder. So many emotions conveyed by looks, incidents and unspoken communication. Perhaps Tim watched a different film to the one we saw.

Brian | 07 July 2014  

Every reviewer seems to have a different opinion about this film. I thought it was excellent, artistically and technically, but, ultimately, nihilistic. A bit like a good production of "Waiting for Godot". As someone once said of the latter "What the hell was it all about?" The murderous butcher seemed a nut case. He was OK with his wife's affair with the African mechanic - which would've cheesed off a normal man - but wanted to murder an innocent priest who had never molested a child. Bizarre. There is some literature on the warping effects of old fashioned Irish (and Australian-Irish) Catholic, specifically Christian Brothers, education on former pupils. But the film didn't mention or hint at this. Bizarre. Worth seeing for the acting and scenery.

Edward Fido | 08 July 2014  

"To much talk about sin",... I think I remember Fr James saying to his daughter," And not enough talk about forgiveness". If you haven't yet seen this movie. These 'His' words will clarify the very last scene for you.

Matthew 18:22 | 19 July 2014  

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