CINEMA by Symeon J. ThompsonNews Weekly
Understanding grace, mercy and suffering
, August 16, 2014
Calvary (rated MA15+) is reviewed by Symeon J. Thompson.
John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary is a darkly comic philosophical thriller, Chesterton-like in its colourful characters and the conflicts they represent. It is a powerful cinematic exploration of a specific sequence of events, but one that’s universal in its application.
Kelly Reilly (left) and Brendan Gleeson in Calvary
Since this is a review, and not a commentary, and the movie’s a “whosgonnadoit?” I cannot say too much — but for audiences I recommend watching through the credits, as they too add to the film.
Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) a burly-bearded soutane-wearing parish priest, is hearing confessions. An unseen “penitent” speaks of how he was abused as a child, and that he’s decided to kill a “good priest” in retribution — the “good priest” being Fr Lavelle. The victim/murderer gives Fr Lavelle a week to “set his house in order”.
Calvary is a beautiful film and a challenging one — a pitch black comedy and heart-wrenching tragedy knitted together. McDonagh makes clear that he was inspired by Agatha Christie and old Westerns for his structure, and Flannery O’Connor for the atmosphere, meaning the film has a distinctly noirish vibe.
It is not a work of “realism”. The characters are all heightened and theatrical, as is the situation. The truth is in how they interact and why, and what that says of humanity as a whole. It is more like Shakespeare, even if McDonagh credits the Irish absurdist Samuel Beckett as an influence.
What comes through from this film is a deep sense of how messy and damaged and difficult the world is, but that it’s still worth it. It resonates on a similar level to the French auteur Robert Bresson — another acknowledged influence is the author Georges Bernanos — who’s referenced in the movie, and, from them, on to Dostoevsky with his deep awareness of suffering and the importance of forgiveness.
The Bernanos-Bresson connection is particularly strong as Bresson filmed Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest in 1951, and McDonagh watched it repeatedly before shooting began. That work deals with the challenges that a naïve, but honourable, young priest faces when the souls he’s trying to help have been twisted by circumstance to such an extent that they’re almost beyond recognition. But still he tries.
And the same with Fr James Lavelle, who was written as a hero. He’s the most real of the characters, flawed but resolute, and, most importantly, self-aware. He knows he’s a broken man in need of grace. He does not presume on salvation. But nor does he despair. He trusts in God. And does his job.
Brendan Gleeson said that putting on the priestly clothes made him feel like a “samurai”, that they were like a soldier’s uniform, and that certain standards of professionalism went with them.
Larry Smith’s cinematography is haunting and rich, drawing on the paintings of Andrew Wyeth for inspiration, and indebted to the landscapes of County Sligo, Ireland, where it was shot.
This film does not shy away from the horrors of abuse, but nor does it savage the Church — or excuse it. It presents the attitudes that many have, that they feel betrayed and that they cannot trust.
The insights of Jean Améry, Austrian-born philosopher and Holocaust survivor, were crucial for McDonagh. Amery points out that the victims of torture are likely to be broken for life, that they lose all trust in others, and that that trust is nigh impossible to regain.
This is the case with all those affected by abuse, and the organisations involved with them. The damage done is such that it is almost as if they exist on a different wavelength from those who’ve not been victimised. The only response is that of Fr Lavelle — to try to avoid judgement, to maintain one’s own standards, to seek to understand and to be present, and to never compromise on what matters.
Unlike, say, Michael Haneke, whose films also deal with violence and inhumanity, McDonagh has a richer vision. It is one that does not stop with the inhumanity of existence, but shows its various other aspects — its humour, its delicacy, its stillness. Black comedy is an excellent vehicle for this, although, from what I’ve read in other reviews, many folk couldn’t see the humour — ‘tis a grim topic after all.
Like Haneke, however, McDonagh is no longer a believer — but nor is he a bitter polemicist. It’s interesting to note that neither was Robert Bresson, amongst others.
These creatives all see something universal and essential in what are specifically Christian concerns — the need for mercy, the power of grace, the necessity of sacrifice, the constancy of suffering and brokenness, the role of forgiveness; and undergirding it all a will to understand and love others.
This isn’t easy, as Calvary shows. It may not have the results one might desire, as it also shows. But it is, at least, heroic.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).