Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
“I think forgiveness has been highly underrated,” says Father James, the lead character in John Michael McDonagh’s new film Calvary. James—played by Brendan Gleeson in a towering paradoxical performance of both power and humility—is in the middle of a conversation with his daughter. In many ways, his words are a reflection of the people in his small Irish town. People who, though both willingly and stubbornly lost in the despair of sin, are not beyond hope.
Herein lies the tightrope by which Calvary walks—the balance between wretchedness and grace, and the Christian’s response to both. How do we remain committed to forgiveness even in the midst of unchecked sin? Where does grace lie and judgement begin? This is Father James’ journey, but, in many ways, it’s our journey as well. We should share Father James’ same commitment of sacrifice and forgiveness, even when evil threatens to unravel the corners of our heart.
Calvary begins with a quote from St. Augustine. Small white letters fade onto a black screen, a sign of what will later be seen in the film—light surrounded by immersible darkness. The epitaph reads, “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.” This idea of the synonymous reality of judgement and hope carries through to Calvary’s next, very important, moment.
The face of Father James now appears. Wearing priestly vestments, Gleeson sits in a confessional booth as a parishioner enters the opposite side. A male voice begins to speak, recounting, in poignant terms, the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of a Catholic priest. During the scene, which is a four minute single take, the audience never catches a glimpse of the man in the compartment next to James. Only Gleeson’s steady expressions, streaked with confusion and sadness, are visible.
The voice goes on to say, “I’m going to kill you Father. I’m going to kill you because you’ve done nothing wrong. I’m going to kill you because you’re innocent.” James has one week before the man carries out his promise of vicarious revenge.
What follows next is not so much a whodunnit mystery, as it is a week in the life of a small town parish priest both tending to his flock and coming to terms with his own mortality. For the next ninety minutes, Father James talks to, counsels, and lives life with the people of his congregation. He does what any good priest aims to do—he ministers.
Surprisingly, and to some viewers likely frustration, Father James doesn’t do much to reveal the identity of his would-be killer. He seems to know who threatened him—he does take confessions often—but he chooses to keep the information close. Father James is more concerned with the people of his parish, and the soul of his proposed killer, than the actual mystery itself. Thematically and practically, this turns out to be a good choice. The parish’s congregants need all the help they can get.
As idyllic as Father James’ town seems—the contrasting majestic scenery of waves dashing against weathered rocks is a reoccurring shot—the townspeople are, for lack of a better term, pagans. And this is putting it nicely. Nearly every one of the Ten Commandments are broken at least once during the film. Racism, adultery, greed, and of course murder, hover over the citizens like a dense Irish fog.
“Sometimes you have to see darkness to understand light,” would be a great summation of McDonah’s approach to storytelling in Calvary. There’s the prideful banker who disregards the Sabbath, building his fortune at the expense of others. The adulterous wife who’s as sarcastic as she is seductive. The town doctor, Frank, a cynical atheist who gets off sharing the bloody details of his patient’s traumas. A prideful police chief, suicidal writer, and a cannibalistic serial killer are just a few more who fill in the cracks. There’s even a fellow priest who seems more concerned with his position of authority than the people of his church. Like the epitaph at the beginning of the film, Father James is a white text among blackness.
As the plot progresses, Father James must deal with the question, like many believers, of what to do in the midst of such evil and despair. As his murder mystery takes a back seat to his job as priest, James fights to see the hope in all. “No one is a lost cause, Veronica.” “I think that if God can’t understand you Freddie, nobody can.” “There’s too much talk about sins and not enough talk about virtues.” These are just a few of the phrases we hear Father James say during his many impromptu counseling sessions.
This isn’t to argue that Father James is a perfect individual. The issues of personal and corporate theodicy eventually lead him to a breaking point. James also wrestles with feelings of detachment to his suicidal daughter. During the film, he doubts, stumbles, and swears. All of these weaknesses add rings of detailed layers to his character. Yet, Father James’ struggles with evil are more than isolated instances; his journey embodies a much wider, grander narrative that touches us today.
I should also point out that most of the characters in Calvary are not so much representations of Irish citizens as they are a conglomeration of Irish stereotypes. Even the cinematography lends itself to the quixotic nature of the narrative. Large amounts of head space, skewed angles, and conflicting warm golden hues crop up now and again. McDonagh comes across as less concerned with reality as he is with presenting this story as a mythical reality. Or, in biblical terms we’re accustomed to, a parable.
With this in mind, Calvary seems to serve as an overarching allusion for Christianity in a society where followers of Jesus are, like Gleeson’s character, both congruently respected and reviled. Our struggle is the same as Father James: how will we respond to the evil around us? What will we do and, even more so, how will we defend ourselves when the mob comes for our own head?
Father James’ treatment of sinners and recurring message of hope correctly illustrate that while grace is easily received, it’s not provided without difficulty. Father James must daily give of himself if he ever hopes to inspire lasting change in the lives of those around him. The title of the movie is, after all, Calvary, the place where the ultimate sacrifice was paid for humanity’s forgiveness. McDonagh’s narrative seems to understand this principle, right down to the film’s final, powerful shot.
Calvary illustrates, more than any other film this year, that following Jesus means carrying a cross much like our savior. It means caring less about our life than the lives of others. Even the dirtiest of lots. As priests in God’s kingdom, we can and should relate to Father James’ character. We should share his same commitment of sacrifice and forgiveness, even when evil threatens to unravel the corners of our heart.
Sure, living a life of the cross might not entail the salvation of every thief. But do not despair, it might mean the salvation of one.
Note: Because of Calvary’s mature content, it might not be for everyone. The film is rated R for sexual references, language, brief strong violence and some drug use.
For as low as $5/month, you’ll get access to free offerings from creators and authors we love, exclusive access to our member’s only forum, and exclusive content and podcasts — and you’ll help ensure that CAPC keeps getting better and better.