Produced by Reprisal Films and The Irish Film Board  
Directed and written by John Michael McDonagh
Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures

In his novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), James Joyce has the father of his protagonist, Stephen Daedalus, bitterly complain of the Irish people, “We are an unfortunate priest-ridden race and always were and always will be till the end of the chapter.”  In Simon Daedalus’ estimation, the nation’s clergy had so abused their spiritual and temporal power that they had paralyzed the Irish citizenry.  Joyce agreed with his character.  That’s why he left Dublin for the Continent in 1912, never to return.  A century later, the Emerald Isle boasts a laity who feel free to spew vulgarity and profanity in their priests’ faces.  Or so John McDonagh would have us believe.

His new film, Calvary, so exults in assailing the clergy that you may feel it not in vain to invoke the Lord’s name now and again to ward off divine retribution just for having witnessed such a generalized calumny.

To get the ball rolling, McDonagh begins with a close up of Father Lavelle (the burly, impassive Brendan Gleeson) waiting in his confessional for his next penitent.  Upon arriving, this soul does something wholly unexpected.  Forgoing the usual formula (“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned”), he abruptly announces, “I was seven when I first tasted semen.”

Father Lavelle considers this for a cool moment and then responds as you might expect: “Certainly a startling opening line.”  The supposed penitent asks Lavelle if he’s being ironic.  Lavelle demurs apologetically and invites the man to continue.  But it’s not the Sacrament of Penance this fellow is seeking.  No, he wants vengeance, and since his abuser is long dead, what could be better than to kill Lavelle?  After all, taking out a good priest, as everyone knows Lavelle to be, would make quite an effective statement.  Then, to be fair, he tells Lavelle he’s going give him a week to get his affairs in order.

As openers go, Lavelle is right: This is startling.  Still, I had to wonder at its contrivance.  The would-be murderer is careful to point out that the priest who repeatedly raped him did so only from the time he was 7 until he was 12.  This seems a suspiciously precise scheduling.  It’s almost as though McDonagh has arranged matters so that we will not suspect the priest of homosexual sin but of the pedophilic variety.  Seems a politically cautious move, especially for the dedicated iconoclast who gave us the brutalities in his former films In Bruges and The Guard.  McDonagh seems to be toeing the line set down by the New York Times and the major networks: Abusive priests were, to a man, pedophiles; homosexuality had nothing to do with it.  Indeed, as we’re schooled daily, homosexuals don’t sin at all, in or out of the clergy.

Calvary has attributes to admire, but honesty has gone missing from the list.  And so has subtlety.

McDonagh strives mightily to shock us, but often succeeds in benumbing us instead.  After a while his outré cavalcade left me begging, “Please, please, not another outrage.”

As the film marches us through what could be Father Lavelle’s last seven days on earth, we meet members of his flock—some nominally faithful, others angrily apostate.  To help us along, McDonagh has posted the days in writing in the upper-left corner of the screen.  As they go by in this unholy week, we watch him encounter precisely 12 of his parishioners (symbolism, anyone?), each troubled in his or her own way.  There’s the adulteress who’s very publicly and proudly having an affair with a Ghanaian auto mechanic, a gentle man who may or may not have given her a black eye.  As this noble fellow carefully explains to Lavelle, without admitting to anything, it’s been his experience that white women like to be hit now and then.  Are we to understand that black women are less susceptible to this particular endearment?  As for the cuckolded husband, he takes his wife’s infidelity lightly, telling Father Lavelle that the African is doing him a favor.  He’s relieved the husband of the necessity of paying the marriage debt, as it was once called.

Then there’s the obscenely wealthy banker who has hung Holbein the Younger’s 1533 painting The Ambassadors in his living room, a work distinguished by its anamorphic rendering of a skull at the bottom of the canvas.  It’s generally thought to be a meditation on mortality.  Although quite a few viewers will know that it hangs in London’s National Gallery, McDonagh has nevertheless enlisted this canvas, a bargain at $330 million, to illustrate the banker’s vulgar penchant for conspicuous consumption.  “I don’t understand it,” he nonchalantly tells Lavelle, “but I don’t have to; I own it.”  To make his point he takes it from his wall and urinates on it.  Although the act leaves Lavelle singularly unimpressed, I suspect McDonagh has assumed we’ll be astounded by his wit in so disposing of this treasure.  I grant it’s amusing, but no more.

Another parishioner is a fallen-away surgeon who gleefully trumpets his atheism whenever the opportunity arises.  He comes closer to discomfiting Lavelle.  The man is so immured in his patients’ pain and gore that he takes pleasure in disabusing those who would persist in believing they live under the care of a merciful God.  He tells Lavelle of an anesthesiologist who so botched his handling of a three-year-old that he left the boy deaf, blind, mute, and paralyzed.  Imagine waking entombed in your own body, unable to hear your own screaming, the good doctor fairly crows, thinking he’s delivered a knockout blow to Father Lavelle’s faith.  Again, McDonagh is straining for effect, but perhaps to good purpose here.  He clearly wants to demonstrate that Lavelle’s faith is made of sterner stuff than what the surgeon has thrown at him.  The priest is proof against such problem-of-evil assaults.  As a widower, he’s been tried not only by his wife’s death but by his suicidal daughter who visits him, complete with bandaged wrists.  She thinks he abandoned her to take up the priesthood after his wife died.

Lavelle doesn’t know quite how to handle his parishioners’ problems, but, as he tells his daughter, we could all begin by focusing on the virtues rather than the sin.  Which, his daughter asks, would be first on his list?  Forgiveness, he answers without hesitation.

Despite McDonagh’s uneven attempts at irony and japery, his attachment to Catholicism, however vestigial, has led him to make of Gleeson’s stoical, experienced Father Lavelle what believers want in a priest: a man following, however uncertainly, in our Savior’s steps.  Whatever’s thrown at Lavelle, he’s determined to bear the world’s evils for the good of his shabby flock.  Who would complain of being priest-ridden by such a man?

I found it intriguing that McDonagh conceived Lavelle as a widower.  Having been married and had a child, Lavelle is presented as a man with a fuller understanding of the weakness and goodness in himself and others.  The adulteress, for instance, neither surprises nor daunts him.  Lavelle’s decency and conviction reminded me once more that mandatory celibacy in the Roman Catholic clergy is a benighted institution that’s done much to harm the Church.  Would there, for example, be a homosexual scandal of the proportions we’ve experienced in recent decades if there had been a married priesthood?  I doubt it.  Allowing for a married clergy would have given Church leaders a far larger number of candidates from which to winnow the questionable from the ranks.  Faithfully married priests, furthermore, would naturally exert social pressure on both themselves and their single colleagues, even those homosexually inclined, to remain chaste.

The present Pope is giving signs that he thinks similarly.  Like Father Lavelle, he’s more interested in talking about virtues than sins when it comes to sexual matters.  All to the good, I say.