Laura Canning
School of Film and Television at Falmouth University, Cornwall, UK

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Calvary (John Michael McDonagh 2014)

In this ambitious attempt at something between a Bergman-esque mystery play and a nihilist Western, McDonagh steers his course through a vastly more complex moral path than did his international hit The Guard (2011). While superficially it takes the form of a suspense thriller – Fr. James Lavelle (constant collaborator Brendan Gleeson) has been informed in the confessional by an unknown former victim of clerical abuse that he will be killed in a week – it is less the identity of his putative murderer which not at odds here, but rather he negotiation of Lavelle’s seemingly inevitable martyrdom.  And martyrdom it is; we are given to understand from the beginning that Lavelle is, as he is sneeringly referred to later in the film, “the good priest”, punished for the sins of the Catholic Church.

As seems to be par for the course with McDonagh, it is a potent mixture of the provocative and engaging, and the repellently boorish.  Shot mainly in Sligo by Larry Smith (Bronson, Only God Forgives), the landscapes avoid overblown John Hinde lushness, instead giving us wild expanses which, if they veer a little too close to Bord Fáilte ads, emphasising empty beaches and solitary surfers, at least give us a recognisable contemporary Ireland.  It is an Ireland which also calls out to that ur-representation of the West of Ireland, The Quiet Man (John Ford 1952); not simply in geographical terms, but in several scenes which recall, and then transform for contemporary contexts, thematic elements.  Lavelle, fishing in the river as he speaks with his daughter from a pre-ordainment marriage (Kelly Reilly), is framed in ways which recall Ward Bond and Maureen O’Hara’s similar conversation; a ‘hooley’ in the village pub – the only apparent intrusion of traditional Irish culture into the film’s world – is punctuated by an instance of quasi-comic violence in which a priest is punched. However, whereas in The Quiet Man the priest becomes a powerful figure of civic reconciliation, and eruptions of brawling serve as catharsis, symbolically uniting the community, in Calvary a bleaker picture emerges.

McDonagh is clearly making links here between Ford’s Wild West and the mythic ‘True West’ of Irish cultural nationalism; light references to “Apaches” and “Arapahoe” serve as linguistic tokens of this. However, it is in the underlying sense of moral lawlessness which dogs the priest’s encounters with his parishioners as he bids to identify his persecutor, that the parallel between the two wests is made overt.  When the local Garda Inspector provides him with a gun and a no-questions-asked alibi, the sense of Lavelle as a gunslinging cleric conducting a solitary moral crusade in a dangerous town further reinforces this.

As with McDonagh’s previous work, elements of black comedy pervade the film, as well as a strand of puerile humour which assumes that two priests using the word “felching” must be intrinsically hilarious.  In truth, these, and the putative suspense-thriller structure, sit uneasily with the deeper – and more interesting – matters which lie beneath. His reliance on hokey narrative interventions, one character asking as we enter the final phase of the film “How’s that for a third act revelation?” reads not as reflexivity but as egotism, the act of a writer who cannot bear for their powerful presence to be overlooked; his dialogue is as archly overwrought and wearying to listen to as The Guard’s. It is also difficult to see the central principle of the film, the killer’s assertion that “[t]here’s no point in killing a bad priest. But killing a good one? That’d be a shock, now” as anything other than a set-up, a narrative hook, as opposed to a genuine moral or ethical problem.

There are profound difficulties with regards McDonagh’s representations of gender, race, and sexuality. Lavelle’s daughter Fiona, recovering after post-love affair suicide attempt, is merely a wounded bird who serves as a reminder of Lavelle’s former ‘normal’ non-celibacy, orienting him in reassuringly conventional heteromasculine terms.  Provocative femme fatale Veronica is of interest only in terms of her (defined as kinkily outré) sexual practices. Interestingly, male desire (whether thwarted, brutal or sad) is treated here with compassion no matter how destructive; socially dysfunctional Milo parrots slogans about joining the army, outlining that his problem is “[n]ot getting laid. It’s starting to make me feel really angry towards women.” In other hands, this could serve as an attempt to unpack male aggression and its consequences – and McDonagh takes it in an interesting direction with Lavelle’s assertion that “I’ve always felt there’s something inherently psychopathic about someone who joins the army in peacetime” – but instead the script returns to joking about “chicks with dicks.” McDonagh’s cast of local eccentrics are casually misogynistic and racist; African immigrant Simon is merely treated as a way for Lavelle to demonstrate his superiority over the cringingly uncomfortable Fr. Leary (David Wilmot). Most uncomfortably, in what must surely be an effort on McDonagh’s part to intensify the conflict between the priest and the community, the supposed “good priest” Lavelle trivialises Simon’s legitimate critique of the Catholic church’s actions in Africa – “You cannot tell me what to do. We’re not in the Missions now…Are you going to cut off my hand if I disobey?” – by responding “Black people, white people, blah blah blah.”

However, in a somewhat unlikely turn, McDonagh’s blistering analysis of post-crash Ireland rings resoundingly true. All sense of community seems absent here, every character holding onto their own secrets, each filled with private rage, pain, and emptiness. Self-described financial “colossus”-turned country squire Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran) is a caricature (as are so many of the supporting characters) but a complex one.  Assessing his possessions in simple terms of their relative expense, utterly distanced from the abandonment of his wife and children, and dismissive of philanthropy as anything other than “the expiation of guilt”, he is not immune to philosophical crisis.  As he contemplates urinating on his disliked Breughel simply “so I can have some sort of spiritual revelation” Lavelle comments that “People like you have pissed on everything else, I suppose.”  It is from Fitzgerald that the most damning critique of Irish society comes; describing his pre-economic collapse exit from the financial markets as “the perfect getaway”, he notes that

they’d have to charge half the financiers in Ireland, and half the bank managers along with them, and then troop into government and arrest those cunts as well.  And we all know full well that’s not going to happen. There’ll be no punishment forthcoming for a man such as myself. There never is.

The Catholic church is linked with these structures of corruption and oppression in inescapable ways; Inspector Stanton (Gary Lydon) recounts the tale of having been redeployed to the west as a young Garda in punishment for attempting to bring a case against a paedophile priest; Brendan Lynch (Pat Shortt) raises the bank-enforced foreclosure of his pub in bitter terms: “How come I never hear your mob preaching about that?…Those are sins too, aren’t they? I suppose when you’ve a history of screwing the jews out of their money, and collaborating with the Nazis, it’s like the pot calling the kettle black.” Lavelle’s defensive posturing in reply “I suppose it is. Getting full use out of your library card there Brendan?” – reveals that indeed, Lavelle may be “the good priest” but is as prone to self-justification as any other mortal.

Indeed it is in its use of Brendan Gleeson, and the questions at the heart of his dilemma – should he save himself by fleeing, reveal his persecutor, or hope that he can appeal to his rationality and free will in time to change his mind – that Calvary is at its most interesting and complex.  Positioned and structured as the slow procession to martyrdom of one good man, the inability of the film to manage theoretical or psychological disjunctures between Lavelle as a man and Lavelle as priest start to crack it open. The rage the community directs towards him is not condemnation of him as a man, but as a representative of the Catholic church; this serves both its narrative function (of those threatening him, one of them must be the killer), and its crudely symbolic function (they are the agents of his Christ-like martyrdom).  However, Lavelle is the furthest thing possible from the ‘bogeyman priest’; the film tries so hard to make him ‘relatable’ as a contemporary man – to avoid alienating its presumed audience of religion-avoiding 18-35 year olds?  – that it becomes difficult to understand why this man became a priest at all.

Certainly his vocation is never literalised; he admits “I have no answers”; he speaks to parishioners in terms which more closely align with humanist perspectives, such as when he says to a grieving widow “What is faith? For most people it’s the fear of death, nothing more than that.” This woman – notably a French, rather than Irish Catholic – is one of two characters given a position close to more ‘familiar’ traditional doctrine when she says of others in crisis “They lose their faith? It must not have been much of a faith to begin with, if it is so easy for them to lose.”  The second is, more grotesquely, a former student (and cannibal serial killer) whom Lavelle visits in prison; hopeful that if he repents he may go to heaven and apologise to his victims, he asks Lavelle if “God made me, didn’t he? So he understands me.” Lavelle in reply takes not a doctrinal position, but an almost psychotherapeutic one: “If God can’t understand you…no one can”.  While framing the character in these terms works well to place the priest on ground recognisable to contemporary secular-humanist audiences (he is more Fr. Therapy than Fr. Trendy), it creates a problem of narrative, and of representational politics.

The question of whether McDonagh resolves this narrative problem is difficult to answer.  As Lavelle appears to disavow (or at least avoid) many of the doctrinal positions of the Catholic church, but is being punished for the sins of that church, the question of whether he is being punished as a man or a priest becomes inescapable. His persecution as a man is a crime, morally, but the focus on his suffering – such as when an innocent conversation with a young girl results in her father screaming abuse at him – obscures or undercuts the legitimate and well-focused anger against the Catholic church which the film also holds in tension.  The community’s resentment towards him cannot therefore be seen as rage towards the church, but as a personal calvary; this both drains the political elements of the film of their energy, and reinforces the impotence of the Irish people in the face of deeply structuralised corruption and inequality.  However, this is a performance of great depth and complexity, and it seems no coincidence that it is also the least verbose: it seems that if McDonagh could rein in his inner chatterbox (or his outer show-off) he could produce fine and subtle work.

Gleeson, the rock around which all waves must flow, gives the film a gravity and emotional richness that Mc Donagh’s cardboard cut-out village eccentrics cannot match, and the contrast between the two modes of address fatally destabilises it.  The narrative demands that almost everyone Lavelle encounters must have a reason to kill him; the result is, unfortunately, that characters’ motivations seem mechanical, and they are given McDonagh’s grandstanding speeches with which to work rather than emotionally or psychologically convincing encounters.

It is frustrating that McDonagh cannot seem to link character and narrative without lapsing into distracting, sub-Synge wordplay, and therefore paradoxical that while the most impressive aspect of the film is Gleeson’s performance, some of the grandstanding scenes – as opposed to those which rely on contrived parochial shenanigans, or self-conscious wordplay – are very powerful.  The final showdown – for it is shot precisely in such gunslinging terms – sees the abuse victim-turned-avenger point out to Lavelle that for all his talk of virtues, he cried for his dead dog, but not for the children in the newspapers. The stories of abuse, cover-ups and structural corruption, have not touched Lavelle, whose martyrdom ends on a somewhat ambiguous note; the abuse survivor is the real victim here, not the priest – but the camera refuses to linger on him, turning instead to a strangely Angelus-like montage of the supporting characters.

McDonagh’s sense of anger and loss seems genuine, and if the film implies that in abandoning the Catholic church we have lost ourselves to the worship of sex and money, he refuses to give us any real alternative, certainly not in the benevolent conscience-pricking of God’s own sheriff. Philosophically, the film veers towards nihilism: if the church and state are corrupt and rotten, only personal honour and compassion remain, says this individualist perspective; but individualism can be fatal, as Fr. Lavelle, for all his virtues, discovers.  As he goes to his fate, following a sparingly-shot preparation sequence, Lavelle calls his daughter from a payphone to tell her “I think there’s too much talk about sins, to be honest. And not enough talk about virtues…Forgiveness has been highly underrated.” Calvary is undeniably muddled and problematic, but takes a brave step towards maturity for the writer-director, and with a performance at its heart that conveys more compassion than McDonagh’s words seem capable of.