Lauren Ely portrays the Irish director John Michael McDonagh’s new film, Calvary, as capturing “the horror of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church while at the same time presenting a case for the necessity of the institutional priesthood.” The plot centers on a threat to kill the main character, Fr. James, made during confession by a parishioner who was raped by a now dead priest as a child:
What follows is a surprisingly complex, if imperfectly executed, meditation on the nature of sin and mercy, set in the epicenter of the sexual abuse scandal. We are introduced one by one to Fr. James’s parishioners, each with their own set of problems including drug use, adultery, and prostitution to name only a few. Their attitudes toward the parish priest range from begrudging respect to apathy to outright contempt. Every hackneyed anti-Church saying one can think of is used by the townspeople as a taunt against Fr. James: that the Church is only out for money, that priests are control freaks, that Catholicism has no good answer for the problem of evil. By contrast we see Fr. James doing the hard, daily work of the priest with dogged fidelity as he counsels prisoners, administers last rites in the middle of the night, and comforts a young widow. The film paints very clearly the life of the priest in stark relief to the world’s perception of what a priest is, all while allowing Fr. James to retain his spirited, gruff, flawed humanity.
S. Brent Plate sees the film grappling both with the abuse perpetrated by the Church and “what occurs in the wake of that abuse” – that is, what happens to a society when an institution like the Church collapses:
Calvary depicts a land freeing itself from the constraints of the church, from the ethics of obedience to commandments, from the compulsions of hell. Father James dwells among them, though retains little authority, like the church itself. He still hands out Communion to those who come, but the parish is hollowed out. When the church building burns down Father James is upset, even if no one seems surprised. The church itself becomes the sacrifice that allows society to live on. But at what cost is not clear.
The alternatives to the ethical and spiritual influence of religion are not all they are cracked up to be. The smart and rational-minded fritter life away with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The commoners don’t appear to have the sense to make sense. The rich piss it away. The sensitive become self-destructive to the point of suicide. While under the shadow of a corrupt church, Calvary ultimately questions the integrity and sustainability of a secular world. The final scene repeats the opening scene, even as it inverts it. The secular confessional seems dim by comparison.
In an interview, McDonagh and Brendan Gleeson, who plays Fr. James, discussed that issue as well:
BG: For a while there, the Celtic Tiger was bling. It was quite vacuous, and not very nice to witness, to be honest. There was a kind of vacuousness as to what people were substituting for spirituality. It’s still an open question. People are coming around to perhaps understanding that they have a responsibility to contribute to the answer. That they can’t just expect to be led all the time, that they have to contribute to a positive viewpoint and get constructive about the way they intend to live their lives.
JMM: And I think what we’re saying now is, after all the crashes and all the scandals, is that I don’t think it’s led to a complete negativity. I think there are more and more people seeking [something], whether it’s a spiritual meaning or a political meaning to their lives. Sometimes you have to have a great depression, but other, more positive values can come out of that. Sometimes you have to be at the lowest ebb for things to get better.