Brendan Gleeson is not a small man, and we should all be grateful. As the Irish priest James Lavelle in John Michael McDonagh’s film Calvary, his enormous presence generates an engaging tension: the loving man of God who, if he hugged you a little too tight, might crack something.
Should you make him angry, he could do some real damage.
Don’t worry. Writer/director John Michael McDonagh never lets the man or the story bluster too far into Santa Claus or Rambo territory. In general, Father Lavelle feels trustworthy and safe, reinforced by his gentle smile and that ever-present collar. And yet, from the outset, we’ve been primed toward suspicion by the opening title card:
“Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved.
Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.”
— St. Augustine
The first spoken line, right after, also undercuts our security. Lavelle patiently listens in a confessional booth, as an off-screen voice sneers:
“I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.”
We immediately see where this is going, and the Catholic sex abuse scandals will billow like thunderheads over most of the film.
We also know, from the next line, that Calvary will be a better movie than most. Our priest pauses, then responds somberly with an honest and human answer: “Nothing to say.”
Then, in one of those terrific register shifts at which Gleeson so excels, Lavelle quips:
“… certainly a startling opening line…”
Gentle gallows humor will prove Lavelle’s greatest defense against evil throughout the film, second only to his faith. Or are they the same? Does not one flow as grace from the other? Throughout, Lavelle persuades us this is so. He has a past, but he understands and lives in the present, and he’ll be damned (literally) if he doesn’t give it as much grace and integrity as he can muster.
He’s going to have to, because, after some tortured conversation about a horrendously abusive priest, the “penitent” states his true intentions: to release a shockwave through the seemingly apathetic Church that has destroyed so many innocents. “I’m gonna kill you father. I’m gonna kill you because you’ve done nothing wrong.”
So, as Christ died for the sins of the world, this priest may need to die for the sins of the Church. And, so, the film is structured: a week for the priest to “get his house in order” and “make his peace with God.” The assassin’s identity remains a mystery, but Lavelle knows him, as he recognized the voice (a sign of his attentiveness to his flock). So, the real drama is not really “whodunit?” or “will he do it?” but whether Lavelle can pursue his calling under threat.
Lavelle gets his house in order as every priest should: by doing what he always does, in everyone else’s homes – another day, another conversation, another horrendously broken parishioner. They often mock him, taunt him, tempt him. One miserable old man suggests Lavelle should assist in his suicide; another, a prisoner, seeks re-assurance he’ll go to Heaven, despite having enjoyed raping and killing numerous young girls. Lavelle doesn’t typically give great theological answers, and he often seems frustrated at these moments.
But, by God, he is there. He fills the frame in every way, and that black cloak just makes him all the more monumental.
To be battered by enemies is one thing, but to be abused by those you love is quite another, particularly when you know that one of them is planning to shoot you dead on a beach this coming Sunday. And still, with each conversation, Lavelle avoids dwelling on the assassin. He’s more concerned with understanding his duty to God, and the way He appears to have stepped away while the world rips itself to pieces.
“I’m gonna kill you father. I’m gonna kill you because you’ve done nothing wrong.”
This is where Diary of a Country Priest comes to mind. Georges Bernanos’ marvelous novel, about a similarly underappreciated and much abused priest, mirrors Lavelle’s situation. Robert Bresson turned the novel into a much-revered film in 1951 that has defined a whole cinematic approach to the spiritual life. The writer/director Paul Schrader famously described Bresson’s film as an example of “transcendental style,” by which he meant an austere, ascetic approach to acting and mise-en-scene. This creates a type of distance or disparity that signals an otherworldly dimension, like the knowing stare of an icon. It’s an ostensive marker of a higher reality.
Only a few directors have really managed to understand or properly emulate this approach, and, gratefully, Calvary attempts nothing of the sort. Instead of Bresson’s sickly, quiet, unsmiling priest, Gleeson ripples with energy and emotion. If Bresson’s priest was an icon of Christ, Calvary’s priest is more like a long-form essay in the New York Times Magazine; the everyday Saviour, humble and sincere, suffering for his troubled flock. His Via Dolorosa, if it is that, runs through the heart of this Irish village.
The complications of life as a priest hit us at every turn. No Catholic stereotype or failure is left unmentioned, and doubt haunts every doorway. We learn that Lavelle became a priest in response to the death of his wife. It is noble that he redirected that emotional energy toward the good of others. Yet, his troubled daughter argues he was blind to his own motivations and this has yielded some hard consequences, with which he must reckon.
“The heart is more deceitful than all else, and desperately sick. Who can understand it?” the prophet Jeremiah once lamented. Likewise, redemption is often a long and unmanageable road, as every priest knows. The Apostle Paul called it “the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings,” and saw the long and unmanageable road a privilege. It was a privilege because it was a small price to pay for the reward of helping Christ heal the world.
…he’s faithful in the trenches, facing humanity’s hardest questions.
We look to religious figures to carry our theological baggage on this road. Like the villagers here, we give little thought to the human frailty of our leaders unless they fall from the sky in flames. To shift metaphors, we use them as a screen on which to project our image of God and see if something like Him shows up.
The Irish have a particular fondness for this idea. Give us a good man in the collar, a not-too-perfect representative of God, who wants very much for Him to exist, amid a world where people are consistently remarking how unlikely it all seems. He can be kind and loving to God’s desperate children, and maybe they will believe in something.
Calvary fully engages this tension and so avoids a two-dimensional portrait of the priesthood. However, if there is a flaw in Calvary, it is in the lack of stable and ordinary characters around the man of God. Seemingly, this village is the epicenter of cosmic darkness: Racism. Pedophilia. Murder. Greed. Exploitation. Suicide. People who urinate on priceless artworks (Holbein’s Ambassadors, no less!). When Father Lavelle ends up across the table from the serial killer, one starts to feel this is closer to David Lynch’s Lumberton than Glencolumbkille, Ballyferriter, or Feakle Town. It’s not clear how small this Irish village is, but it’s no metropolis, so it’s a little startling to picture it as a menagerie of human depravity.
But Father Lavelle takes it all in stride, mostly through dutifully listening. It’s not that he’s a pushover or beyond personal doubt—far from it—but he’s faithful in the trenches, facing humanity’s hardest questions.
And this is the gracious pattern of the film: no sermons, no doctrinal revelations, no miracles or shocking interventions, just the steadfast walk of life, and the struggle for hope. Father Lavelle’s authenticity in the Valley of the Shadow suggests we all might, possibly, find a way to “fear no evil.” Bresson’s longsuffering priest famously realized, at the end, that “Grace is everywhere.” Father Lavelle, echoes that sentiment to one of his desperate parishioners: “God is great. The limits of His mercy have not been set.”
Calvary stands as one of those steady, respectable films Christians point to as good storytelling with a thoughtful spiritual telos. “Finally… a film somewhat sympathetic to the faith and not utterly embarrassing,” they might say. Such films—far too few of them—are usually carried by a stellar leading actor, and the rest of the film’s elements (the formal and technical dimensions) stand as modest complements to the lead performance. The budgets are modest, the artistry serviceable (less than brilliant and occasionally flawed), and the director is smart enough to lay low, leaving the central performance and script to shine unencumbered. Robert Duvall’s The Apostle is one example.
Calvary is another. There is nothing particularly remarkable about the artistry of the film, but one must respect that as humble and wise restraint in the wake of Brendan Gleeson. It’s his film, his cross to carry, and he does so, admirably.