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Finding faith in a film called Calvary

CALVARY: Starring Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Domhnall Gleeson, Aidan Gillen. Directed by John Michael McDonagh. 101 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong violence, sexual references and coarse language)

By David McGovern

IT sounds like the beginning of a bad joke: “There’s this Irish priest and he walks into a bar …”

While that scenario does form at least a couple of scenes, the movie Calvary is no laughing matter. In fact, whoever described it as a “black Irish comedy” must have gone to the same school as those real estate copy writers who describe ramshackle, rundown properties as “a renovator’s delight”.

The reaction of the group of 20 people that I shared this movie-going experience with varied, from outright hostility (“as much fun as a shark attack”), through to the more measured “interesting” (the comments of two people as we left the darkness) and a couple of plaudits for the quality of the film-making.

One even went as far as, later in a Facebook post describing it as “A brilliant piece of film-making … challenging, raw and poignant”. 

Make no mistake, Calvary is a well-directed, well-scripted and brilliantly acted movie.

Brendan Gleeson captures the hope-filled, yet worldly, Catholic priest whose faith, fortunately, never strays into zealousness or cynicism. He is the sun around whom the villagers – his parishioners – orbit and draw their warmth. 

Calvary is a movie told over a week. To offer any more plot insights would, essentially, reveal the arc this story takes the viewer on.

Even exploring the significance of the title serves as a spoiler.

So let me confine the rest of my comments to some of the messages that I gleaned during this film:

None of us are immune from the need for forgiveness. I read somewhere recently that a person decided it was easier to forgive a transgressor because “I only have to do it once – to bear a grudge takes a lot more effort because I have to do that every day”.

Brendan Gleeson in Calvary.

Brendan Gleeson in Calvary.

In this movie, the notion that we are all looking for mercy, and needing to dispense it just as much, is a powerful and recurring motif. (Perhaps it also explains why the sacrament of Reconciliation is the most depicted in this film).

For all its sins over the ages, the Catholic Church is still a place where people can find solace, comfort, peace, hope and understanding.

The wife who watches as her husband receives the Last Rites, and then later sits and prays the Hail Mary with the priest, believes her loss is far less wrenching than those who have never experienced love.

For her, her faith is not a crutch but a lighthouse lighting the shore, showing where our head and heart needs to focus if we are to avoid the shoals of doubt and temptation.

Even in her grief, she seems able to look her God in the eye and acknowledge: “Thy will be done”.

The characters of this film – the butcher with a cheating wife, the immigrant African, the cynical doctor, the publican with the ping pong ball and a bank breathing down his neck – all, at some point, level a host of criticisms at the Church, and all it stands for: “Why does God allow bad things to happen to innocent people?; “What about all its wealth?”; “Why do we mourn the seemingly small, personal tragedies (eg a pet dog being killed) and stand, dry-eyed, as innocence is corrupted?”

They are not new accusations but the film allows them to be articulated in a way that reminds us that, beneath all the rhetoric and finger-pointing, there is real and genuine hurt.

It is up to each of us, as men and women of faith, to accept the “messiness” and embrace those struggling to cope with the aftershock.

For those who like their films to serve as a tasteful accompaniment to their popcorn and beverage of choice, this is not a film that will appeal.

It does not entertain. That is not its intent, nor its impact.

When considering the title “Calvary”, Christians can easily forget that without the anguish of Good Friday, there would have been no joy of the Resurrection.

That is how life goes: day follows night, peace comes after forgiving, and being forgiven; and life, we profess, always emerges from death.

It is as simple, and as complex, as that.

This movie, as one of my fellow cinema patrons put it, “makes your mind work and your spirituality grow”.

At one point, the central character is talking with someone close to him on the phone. In an exchange that goes to the heart of this movie’s preoccupation, he states that “there is too much focus on sins and not enough on virtues”.

Whether we are people of faith or not, church-going or lapsed, jaded or joy-filled, the challenge is always how we look at life.

We all have crosses to bear and we have to climb towards our own hill of reckoning. What really matters is how we take those steps, and the lives we touch along the way.

David McGovern saw the film Calvary as part of a fundraiser for the organisation he works for, Catholic Mission.

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