Calvary Is The Latest (Top) Notch On The McDonagh BedpostPosted: August 7, 2014
Calvary is a strong contender to take the title of “Most Catholic Movie Ever” that I bestowed on Doubt earlier this year. It also represents another great work from the Writin’ McDonagh Brothers, Martin (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) and John Michael (The Guard, and this one). Maybe not so surprisingly given the subject matter, this film actually hews closer to Martin’s plays like “Cripple of Inishmaan”- which I saw recently with Daniel Radcliffe, an excellent show- than any of their cinematic efforts so far, which is fine by me. While I’ve certainly enjoyed their films so far, the particular vibe of Martin’s plays has yet to make the leap to the movie theater, and thankfully John Michael lives up to his brother’s example quite well. Calvary is a steadily bleak, but also very human story, one that certainly begs to be viewed again.
Calvary has two separate but equal tracks throughout the story, which hold together the vignette-based structure. On one hand, the film clearly serves as a judgment against the church for the monstrous abuse scandal, with Father James (Brendan Gleeson) representing the potential for positive influence of the church… and how all the good in the church doesn’t undo the awfulness that it also abetted (a sin of omission, at best). Father James is shown being a positive influence and council for the community around him, and the town is certainly better for his being there. But at the end of the day, he still serves a self-serving and privileged system, and on some level he should be held responsible for the crimes of that system, and for only being “concerned” about the abuse victims rather than really trying to make a difference about it.
On the other hand, the various little stories and dramas that Father James gets drawn into over the course of the week serve as an exploration of the idea that “life is sacred” and whether that is true, and considering the various ways that people fuck up their own lives and waste the opportunities presented to them. We see the stuffy London banker, a vision of excess who doesn’t seem to place much value in anything anymore, now that he can technically have anything. We see the atheist doctor who doesn’t seem to have much regard for anyone else but himself, despite being the one that should be taking care of others. We see the promiscuous housewife, her belligerent lover and her detached husband, none of whom seem to be concerned about anyone but themselves. And we see the hermit writer, who is content to shut himself off from the world for the sake of his art. All of them seem to be people adrift, unable or unwilling to be open to their fellow man for fear of further pains. And the ultimate culprit is Father James himself, who joined the priesthood as a balm to sooth the pain of losing his wife, and in doing so gave his daughter her own issues facing loss and abandonment.
The one pure arc throughout all of this is the story of the tourist whose husband dies in a car crash, but who refuses to let it drag her down. Even in losing the person she loved most in the world, she is determined to keep living life, and not hold others responsible for the pain she may end up suffering. She reminds Father James to face the pain head-on, and confront the person on the other side of it, rather than running away and shutting everyone out. And the key to that, I suspect, is forgiveness: not holding a grudge against those that hurt you, and by extension anyone else you might fear could hurt you as well. Father James himself calls forgiveness the most underrated of virtues, and I think that’s the heart of the story here.
In the end, the movie represents the particular sort of story that are a McDonagh hallmark: a sometimes-bleak worldview that is undercut by moments of hope and good potential. The various lives that Father James intersected with are far from perfect, and the story ends on a tragic note that is the culmination of years of awfulness. But in the end we can see that life will go on, that something good could still be built on the ashes of the bad, and that some virtues can still be honored. Calvary acknowledges that everyone feels pain, and that many people let it control them, but that if you forgive and move forward, the pain will heal, and things will get better.