The director John Michael McDonagh does not think his arresting film, “Calvary”(2014), portrays much more than a decent man in a difficult position (he is an Irish Catholic priest) undergoing Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief. He is wrong. That should not surprise. Plato was right to have Socrates remark that artists are often among the worst interpreters of their own creations. St. Paul distinguishes between the gift of tongues and their interpretation. So it is with art.
For my part, I view (and often re-view) “Calvary” as a most poignant artistic representation of how the church should walk—or limp, rather—among and out from Christendom’s ruins.
The film is set in the northwestern Border Region of Ireland, in a small, almost quaint village called Easkey in County Sligo. Its darkly verdant landscape and gray-layered horizon refract a kind of stark emerald beauty wholly absent from the dull cynicism of most its denizens. The county itself is home to a twice-razed medieval abbey that lives now only in curated ruins.
We begin the film in a confessional staring at the face of Father James (Brendan Gleeson). A resolute, anonymous voice from the far side of the latticed screen confesses two grievous sins. One is not his, and the other is not yet done. He had been sexually molested repeatedly since age seven. The predator priest is long dead, a corpse whose rot hardly approximates its soul’s. So, the voice continues, his retribution must fall to another—to Father James—and exactly because Father James is a good priest. Innocence for innocence. The penitent will murder Father James, there along the shoreline, on Sunday next.
The film unfolds across seven days. It runs like a series of painted panels limning an irrepressibly mundane and thankless life. But we also start to sense that each day on its own—and the frail schema they together trace—bear an extraordinary, terrible comeliness. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday—every dawn heralds fresh encounters with old drama (in all that word’s senses). One parishioner is an adulteress, another a batterer, another an incel, another a rich man. All cynics, all resentful, all profoundly broken and scattered. Father James’s only daughter (he’s a widower) seeks haven with him for a few days; she has grown “sick to death of love,” and wears the wrist scars to prove it.
As he navigates these and many paternal responsibilities besides, it is Father James himself who holds the film together much as he does the parishioners’ lives. The story is his. It is his last week of life. You witness his profoundly interior, silent embrace of a fate not obviously his by rights.
Father James assumes the responsibility and agency of the whole church in this film. Or, rather, he is the church by synecdoche. He comes to respond to the impersonal malice and moral exhaustion that barrages him only by embracing his own Golgotha, his own crucifixion. He will let himself be killed by one so horribly disfigured by the church he embodies. In persona Christi, and so on.
But the faith necessary for this consent is also inspired and facilitated by altogether unexpected actors. This priest first fails, utterly. His Good Friday, unlike Christ’s, moves from depression to drink, then to violence. This priest comes through his own Garden of Gethsemane—a scene in an airport where he is about to flee his fate—only because he borrows courage from the unmoved faith of a French widow whose husband he had administered last rites to just the day before, Holy Saturday. And this priest’s Resurrection takes form in his own troubled daughter’s radical forgiveness of his killer—the last scene.
What is particularly striking about this sequence, though, is that Holy Thursday occurs here on Saturday, the Cross on Sunday, and the Resurrection on an unknown day beyond Holy Week itself. The pitiful, resentful victim, raped of its innocence (the Christian West, you might say), slays the priest on a Sunday, apparently the final blow to Christ’s now mutilated body. Now Christ dies even on Resurrection day, the Lord’s Day. And if the church should embrace Christ’s own Calvary, be it physical death (priest) or a death of the despairing self (the French widow’s undying faith, his daughter’s reconciliation—both lay women, notice), then even a crucifixion on Sunday will prove unable to stifle the Spirit’s power to resurrect Christ’s body, the church—though we know little of how or when.
You don’t get to claim Christ’s body without assuming the punishment it suffered.
But it deserves to be crucified. That, I think, is the necessary and timely lesson of “Calvary,” now more than ever. You don’t get to claim Christ’s body without assuming the punishment it suffered. You cannot claim Christ crucified, except to be crucified with him. You are not his body unless you too “become sin” (2 Cor 5: 21)—especially when that sin is your very own, and which he knew not. You do not remain one of its members without suffering and penance.
Over seventy years, more than 300 priests, over 1,000 victims—and this was disclosed solely by brute legal force and in only one part of only one country. The Lord sent Ezekiel to warn Israel’s shepherds of the coming wrath because they had forsaken their flock to the wild animals (Ezek 34:5); but now you are the feral beasts. How will you stand on the great and terrible Day of the Lamb (Rev 6:17)?
“Calvary”shows us that, in our time, you cannot be a good deacon or priest or bishop or archbishop or cardinal or pope unless you atone for your sins and the sins of all Christ’s holy church. That is the only possible beauty that remains for us—a terrible comeliness. Our only salvation is judgment. “For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God” (1 Pet 4:17).