CINEMA by Lucy SullivanNews Weekly
A community wounded by the loss of God
, September 27, 2014
Calvary (rated MA15+) was reviewed by Symeon J. Thompson in News Weekly (August 16). Here, social scientist Dr Lucy Sullivan offers another perspective on the film.
Brendan Gleeson as Father James Lavelle
The film, Calvary, offers a parable of — or perhaps a theory of great psychological insight into — our godless society, and particularly of the plight of the godless within it.
The production, which was funded by the Irish Film Board, speaks via the microcosm of a village in the County of Sligo, W.B. Yeats country, on the north-west coast of the predominantly Catholic Republic of Ireland – its priest and a “representative” selection of villagers and of the local church and social hierarchy. What it shows is a society deeply wounded by the loss of God.
The action is carried by a threat delivered by a parishioner, in the anonymity of the Confessional, that next Sunday he will kill the priest, who, he stresses, is a good priest, in retribution for the sexual abuse he suffered as a child for many years as the victim of an earlier priest, now dead. It is a sort of reversed High Noon challenge.
But the film’s essential manifesto is quite other than this topical issue. Without going here into the details of individual cases, we are shown a series of encounters between the priest and his parishioners, which reveal them as consciously disturbed and unhappy because of the directionlessness and emptiness of their lives, which makes them unable to reconcile with life’s small and large vicissitudes.
One is shocked by the lack of common respect, veering towards antagonism, shown among them towards this man, the priest, which begins to make sense only as an expression of animosity towards the Church itself.
This is not because it has blighted their lives by its strictures (the accusation of mid-20th-century progressives), but because it cannot, now they have rejected it, save them from blighting their lives themselves in the absence of those strictures.
The Church’s ministry itself (seen in the priest, its representative) has been infected by the negativity that surrounds it, its expression of its doctrine strangulated by the expectation of rejection. The advice given by the good priest, even when appealed to respectfully, is no different from what would be given by a secular counsellor.
There are two exceptions to this pattern. One, a woman whose husband is dying, is a believer, and because of the trust between them the priest is able to offer her the traditional religious comfort in the face of death, and also companionability in this transition.
The other is the formerly-abused young man, so deeply wounded by a representative of the church whose moral obligations he clearly has not lightly dismissed like so many around him. He finds himself in a double bind, and the solution he seeks is not so much revenge but an act of self-harm, for his plan involves no strategy to protect himself from the law taking its course.
Over the course of the week’s events shown in the film, we see the priest sinking deeper and deeper into helplessness and depression as the barbs from his “congregation” increase. Even his daughter, having joined him after a suicide attempt, accuses him of having failed her after her mother’s (his wife’s) death when she was a child. His coping action of training for the priesthood was to her a desertion.
As his determination to meet his fate on the seashore solidifies (a solution for him as well), he promises his daughter never to leave her, in a manner conveying his truthfulness as the reality of memory and love. He emphasises the central message of Christianity, which is forgiveness, both God’s and man’s. The final scene of the film, which shows her visiting her father’s killer in prison, reassures us that this task he set has saved her, and the young man too, perhaps.
In a microcosm within the microcosm, the pervasive mundanity with which secularism has infected society is further encapsulated. The dead man’s wife and the priest watch from an airport lounge as the coffin on a trolley is wheeled out to be loaded into the plane. There is a delay on the tarmac, and we watch as the two men in charge casually chat across the coffin, one of them actually leaning on it.
My grandmother died in 1959, and as the hearse and the procession of cars passed through the streets of Toowoomba to the cemetery, everyone on the footpaths stood still in silence until we had passed, and the men took off their hats. (At that time men always wore felt hats in the street.)
This ritual was not just a formal respect for the dead and the mourners, I believe, but a moment of grace, what is now called “spirituality”, for those chance participants in a departure from life. With the loss of ritual we have lost the gift of solemnity and grace.
Sligo, as I said before, is Yeats country. Yeats was Ireland’s great 20th-century poet of spirituality, and he is buried there in Drumcliffe churchyard. Its mountain is Ben Bulben, which in the film is a recurring scenic refrain to the happenings in the village, making the film a sort of antiphon to one of Yeats’s late poems, “Under Ben Bulben”, which abjures the Irish to remain true to the great values and figures of its past.
Lucy Sullivan, PhD, is an Australian social scientist. Her book, False Promises: Sixties Philosophy Against the Church: A Social Memoir Enhanced by Statistics, 1903-1993 (Windsor, NSW: Windrush Press, 2012), is available from News Weekly Books.