By Timothy Troutner
The 2014 film Calvary begins with a quotation (alas, of disputed authenticity) from St. Augustine. The text reads: “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.” With this first image, writer and director John Michael McDonagh evokes the presence of death and the fragility of faith that will dominate the rest of the film.
The bold premise of the film becomes evident in the first scene. Father James, a “good priest” masterfully portrayed by Brendan Gleeson, has been told in the confessional by a victim of clerical sexual abuse that he has one week to live. The following Sunday, he will be killed in an act of defiant retribution for the sins of the Church.
Over the next week, the priest carries out his duties faithfully, visiting his parishioners and dealing with their struggles. Meanwhile, his daughter returns after a failed suicide attempt and tensions with the parish’s other priest escalate. As Friday approaches, the priest’s burdens become nearly unbearable, and the parallels to Holy Week become evident.
Gleeson carries the weight of this film, and his performance is absolutely stunning. Every one of the surrounding cast of characters is compelling, remarkably well-defined for the screen time each receives. These characters border on the edge of parody: the atheistic doctor; the obnoxious rich banker; and yes, the good priest. Yet the film is aware of the stereotypes and able to subvert them at the right moments. The atheistic doctor reflects on the absurdity of the stereotyped part he has to play, crossing the line into self-awareness; the good priest sins; the obnoxious rich banker shows vulnerability without the story’s veering into a clichéd conversion story.
Clearly, McDonagh’s artistic vision does not shy away from potential landmines: in addition to sexual abuse, pervasive religious imagery and occasional political diatribes are scattered throughout the film. Yet as the story narrates a week in the life of this village priest, it becomes increasingly clear that McDonagh has achieved a delicate balance. The film manages to strike all the right notes, simultaneously conveying the weight of the Church’s past sins, the richness of its heritage, and the beauty of faith’s struggle.
The movie avoids the cardinal sin of filmmaking (especially when dealing with religious themes): pushing a message. This is not an anti-Catholic film, but neither is it a Christian one. It is simply a beautifully woven depiction of a village priest haunted by the past and surrounded by evil and death.
In an age when movies about faith are too often clichéd or preachy, Calvary allows faith and death to speak through their presence, not through moralizing or sentimental monologues.
Yet through Father James’ rugged wisdom and flawed yet faithful witness, Calvary remains a powerful depiction of forgiveness and sincere faith.
As Father James tells a grieving woman, “What is faith? For most people it’s the fear of death, nothing more than that. If that’s all it is, it’s very easy to lose.” A faith that is merely the fear of death or the hope for a better outcome in this life is not truly faith. This is not the type of faith Calvary pictures. Despite its focus on evil and suffering, Calvary almost completely avoids the traditional formulation of the “problem of evil”. Instead of questioning the fairness of God or trying to explain “why bad things happen to good people”, the film’s vision assumes the reality of evil. As Teresa tells Father James regarding her husband’s death, “That is not unfair, that is just what happened. But many people do not live good lives, and they do not feel love. That is what is unfair. I feel sorry for them.” This film chooses to focus on how faith is able to see grace where others see only despair and how faith can endure even the valley of the shadow of death. The film redirects our gaze from unanswerable questions to concrete faithfulness. Perhaps, this film suggests, the real question is not why evil exists, but how souls allow themselves to be shaped by it. The characters in Calvary demonstrate multiple responses to evil and suffering. Do they ignore it, turn cynical, lash out in violence, or choose to endure in hope? The film’s greatest strength is its ability, through Father James, to demonstrate the credibility of lived faith—a response to evil that makes sense in the modern world.
Timothy Troutner is a senior studying history and philosophy.