By Nicholas Nicou
John Michael McDonagh’s third feature film Calvary is a rare force in modern mainstream cinema. Featuring a plot dripping with dark humour, the film invites spectators to consider the blurred spaces between sins and virtues, succeeding in offering a gripping philosophical portrait of a society in decay and a community in moral turmoil.
In modern day county Sligo, Ireland, a mild-mannered priest named James Lavelle is taking the confession of a local parishioner when the unknown voice on the other side of the booth threatens to kill him in seven days. Unsure of whether or not take the remark seriously, the Father shields the threat from the police and continues with his regular priestly duties.
Yet, in the seven days following the confession, a series of increasingly insidious attacks against him will test both his good nature and his faith in the inherent goodness of humanity.
In the context of Ireland in the wake of economic collapse, we see a community of tortured souls yearning for answers and searching for meaning in a seemingly desolate and unforgiving environment.
Each of the film’s leading characters have their own personal demons to contend with and, with the authority of the Catholic Church diminished by recent scandals, the parish priest becomes a reviled figure rather than the unifying force which can bring the community together as one.
Sligo is persistently posited as a morally vacuous environment where the doctrines of the church are not only ignored, but deliberately contravened by the members of the community. Yet in most instances their actions are not malicious but misguided, driven by deep-rooted conflicts and resentments.
This is the case for Veronica Brennan, a local woman who flagrantly transgresses the church’s teachings on carnal purity by breaking her marriage vows and cheating on her husband with the local Ghanaian mechanic Simon.
As she goads Lavelle with explicit tales of her adulterous behaviour, we initially view her actions with disdain yet, later in the narrative, we will learn that she has been struck by her troubled husband James. A victim of domestic abuse, her relationship with Simon allows her to experience the affection she does not receive at home though she hides her pain by taking hard drugs and forging a care-free façade of debauched pleasure.
Meanwhile, the millionaire resident Michael Fitzgerald is a man steeped in wealth yet devoid of happiness. With more money than he could spend in a dozen lifetimes, he occupies an empty mansion alone after his wife leaves the family home with his children. He has it all, yet he has nothing, having substituted loving, meaningful relationships for superficial wealth. He, too, will find no solace in the teachings of an institution which, in his view, is as guilty as he for amassing extreme amounts of wealth in the shadow of extreme poverty.
The local public house will also be a focal point for anti-clerical resentment, as its landlord is facing up to prospect of having his land repossessed as he cannot keep up the rent payments. As he fights against mounting debt in the shadow of Ireland’s economic meltdown, he slams Lavelle and the church for what he says is its hypocrisy. In his Sunday sermons, he fails to confront the evil of the banking elite who caused the country’s financial turmoil: are they not the real devils of our time, he asks? If stealing is truly a sin, why haven’t these criminals been subject to justice?
Other members of the community find it hard to find solace in the hope preached by Lavelle while they face the desolation of human suffering on a daily basis. Seeing people’s seemingly inexplicable distress has left Dr Frank Harte a bitter hollow of man, a cynic who trades off his emotional troubles through cheap jokes and hard drugs which distance himself from the everyday horrors he sees in the local hospital. A self-proclaimed atheist, he continually seeks to test the faith of the priest by recounting crushing stories of human hardship.
A chilling monologue he recites to the priest near the end of the feature encompasses this bitterness well: during a routine operation, a child is left blind, deaf and dumb after a near-fatal mistake is made by a doctor. As the child awakens, he opens his eyes but cannot see; listens out for his mother, but cannot hear; wants to shout out for help, but cannot speak.
Harte describes the boy ambling through the darkness, forever hoping in vain for someone to answer his silent screams. Who can begin to explain why the boy experiences such suffering, Harte asks? Why should someone so innocent feel such pain? For him, this warped sermon acts as a conduit for the inherent fear and confusion he feels in a world in which suffering seemingly reigns supreme.
No-one, however, bears as much witness to the fragile boundaries between the moral and the immoral as the unknown man in the confessional at the film’s beginning. As he sits beyond the divide in the confession box, he describes in detail the abuse he suffered at the hands of a Priest when he was just a child, and we are left to muse on the abhorrent abuse of power which allowed certain priests to take advantage of innocent children with total immunity for large parts of the twentieth century.
Unlike the film’s other characters, he will not be satisfied by simply goading the Priest’s vocation and testing his faith with snide remarks: having suffered in silence for his entire life, he will instead take action by murdering the Priest in a warped form of emotional catharsis.
As he admits, this is a fate which Lavelle does not deserve for he has done no wrong. Yet for the shadowy parishioner, it is for this very reason why he must perish. Killing a bad priest, he says, would have no impact at all, but killing a good one would be a shocking remark about how far modern society has deviated from the path of virtue.
From the feature’s first scene, Lavelle is posited as the sacrificial lamb of Sligo. Calvary is, after all, the hill upon which Jesus Christ was crucified – the man who died for the sins of mankind in Christian faith. As we follow Lavelle’s life over seven days, we see his faith in God and in humanity challenged first through innocent remarks and then through increasingly insidious actions.
His role is to help and guide others through testing times, but what if those same people have no interest in being helped? Why aim to lead others on a virtuous path if they persistently flout his sermons through flagrant expressions of sin?
Above all, Calvary offers an expression of a society in moral and social turmoil, where the effects of a debilitating economic crisis are fused with the weakening influence of the Catholic Church and – by extension – organised religion in the twenty-first century.
McDonagh’s feature invites us to consider the fragile lines between the moral and the immoral in society and questions the tenets upon which we base our entire existence, often presenting the viewer with more questions than it answers. It is ultimately this which makes it such a striking, and important, film.
(Image: Álvaro Hernández: [http://alvaro-hernandez.tumblr.com/])