From the opening line of the Irish film Calvary, “startling” to us as it is to the the priest who hears it, the viewer immediately understands the deep wounds left in the wake of the Irish church's decline. In the film, Brendan Gleason stars as the good priest Father James who is maliciously informed in the confessional that he has one week to live before he will be murdered to spite the Catholic church for its past crimes. Killing a bad priest would amount to little, but killing a good one would make for quite a shock.
From an initial viewing, Calvary plays itself off as a who-dun-it film, critically appraised for Gleason's gritty acting and often criticized for its otherwise stereotypical caricatures of Irish perspectives. However, from its first scenes the viewer may catch the fact that Father James already knows the threatener's identity. Under its superficial criminal mystery, Calvary's true potential engages us by displaying the multiple facets of death seen from within a darkly comedic world that is no longer impressed by the Gospel message.
More a parable than realistic fiction, Calvary's scenes pit the struggle of rational and moral common sense against the hard demands of Christ's call to suffering. Surrounded by a hedonistic community, wormy clergy, and scholarly bishops, Father James embodies a profound and human realism rooted in the verse "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me." From Sunday to Saturday, we see a man sinking down under the weight of death's constant presence as he faithfully ministers to his parish with a uniquely disillusioned, yet sincere, demeanor.
One doesn't need to look very far to see that the church is increasingly viewed as an immature blot against humanity's universal development. The modern age may have taught us that progressivism is a fantasy, but it is now popularly assumed that the best step forward means accepting the void rather than backtracking to the foolish notion that there still exists a man behind the curtain. As Calvary states so clearly, faith for many only exists as a response to the fear of death. Religion for them just works, until of course death cuts down our wall of distractions.
Part of the mastery of Calvary's storytelling rests in its embracement of both darkly comedic elements and a Christian authenticity that criticizes the dogmatic concepts of papal authority and Sola Scriptura. Without such foundations, clues of God's presence in Calvary remain elusive, and yet what revelation has ever made truth crystal clear? As two characters talk nonchalantly over a dead man's coffin, the triviality of death, the victory of Christ, and the question of “Does any of it really matter?” rush onto the viewer all at once. Often shot on haunting, windy landscapes, the verse of John 3:8 comes to mind: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
In the Western world where Christ has become comically personal, Yahweh far from transcendent, grace all too common, and the Christian life too ordinary, Calvary reintroduces the beautiful absurdity of Passion Week that flies in the face of our rationalism and declares, “Yet not my will, but yours be done.”