Calvary is a modern-day re-telling of the Christian Gospel. A dark cerebral comedy which tackles the hard questions of guilt, sacrifice, forgiveness, and life’s meaning. The film closely mirrors the liturgical structure of Holy Week, the week in the church’s calendar which directly precedes Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. The protagonist of Calvary is a clear thinking, well intentioned priest, overseeing a parish of degenerates in a rural, isolated portion of Ireland. The film begins with the protagonist Father James (Brendan Gleeson) being told anonymously in a confessional that he will die for the sins of another priest, despite being a “good priest” himself.
Right from the offset his impending demise is put front and center. Again this closely parallels Jesus’s ultimate demise upon the cross. As Christians move through the landscape which makes up the liturgical Holy Week, there is ever that knowledge that it will culminate with Jesus’ death on the cross; a death which Christian mythology understands as taking place for the sins of others, in order that reconciliation with God is made possible.
In this vain, there is a sense that Father James is not dying needlessly, but sacrificially for his parishioners; that somehow the collective evil of all them, or perhaps even society itself, will be redeemed in his death. As the film unfolds, we the audience are invited to consider who we think the would-be-murderer is, though ultimately we are brought to a place where the question becomes incidental, for his act of cruelty is merely a manifestation of the pain or sickness of the age. As Jesus says upon the cross, ‘Forgive them for they know not what they do’.
Though the film strongly emphasizes the Christian narrative motif, it does so in a contemporary fashion. There is no nod to supernaturalism at all. Father James is the pastor, seeking to know his flock well, and exemplifies forgiveness even in the face of mockery, cynicism, and ultimately violence towards himself. He sums up his life’s philosophy best when he says, “I think there is too much talk about sins to be honest, and not enough talk about virtues… I think forgiveness has been highly underrated.”
His modelling of forgiveness is the ultimate expression of love, a love which is not contained, but supersedes his span of life. It is, if you like, the protagonist’s resurrection, his spirit of forgiveness is uncontainable.
I think the film is refreshing in the way it handles its Christian characters, avoiding the two pitfalls of over sentimentalizing them or, as is more often the case these days, portraying them as hypocrisy-ridden child sex abusers. A film well worth our time, and reflections.