It must be every priest’s worst nightmare: sitting in a Confessional, listening to people anonymously share their darkest secrets and sins, when one person threatens the priest and is utterly unseen thanks to the screen.
In the new movie “Calvary,” small-town Irish priest, Father James, finds himself in just that situation when a mystery man tells him in horrifying detail about the sexual abuse he suffered from another priest as a child, and that he wants to kill Father James as revenge since the offending priest is long dead and that the world would be more shocked by the killing of an innocent priest.
The man tells Father James to meet him on the town beach in seven days to face his fate, and “Calvary” is the stark yet occasionally darkly humorous depiction of that fateful week of waiting. During it, the priest has to face challenges from all manner of friends and family.
Father James (played masterfully by Brendan Gleeson) joined the clergy in mid-life after his wife died, leaving his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) resentful and feeling abandoned. Even as the priest buys a gun for self-defense from a writer (M. Emmett Walsh) who sells it to him illicitly, Fiona comes to visit him, and he has to help her cope with her bipolar depression and the fact that a lover he doesn’t know has hit her.
Father James confronts the man he believes is responsible for hitting his daughter, stirring up tension with him, but also faces an unusual visit from his daughter’s ex-husband (Chris O’Dowd), who seems friendly but then scoffs at him for being a priest and for the crimes of those who abused children.
Also darkening his world is the town police chief, who secretly uses a homosexual prostitute who repeatedly taunts Father James about the fact that he (the prostitute) was sexually abused as a boy. An atheistic doctor tells Father James a horrible true story about a child who was left helpless by botched surgery, tormenting the priest with the idea of why God would allow such suffering to exist.
Father James starts to drink to excess and loses his temper in nearly dangerous fashion. But as the days tick on, he rallies his courage and faith and resolutely makes one nobly right and forgiving decision after another on his way to the showdown.
“Calvary” is strong stuff, with a depiction of faith and loss, good and evil that offers plenty for viewers to think about. Through it all, its central character Father James is shown as fighting for moral justice and to help others find forgiveness and regain their own dignity – although some accept these gifts, and some reject them.
The movie squarely deals with the consequences of the Church’s sexual-abuse scandals, showing the terrible psychological devastation of the victims. But the fact is, these scandals happened, and a portrait that’s three-dimensional and shows a redemptive priest at its core is certainly a worthy way of dealing with the matter.
Ultimately, this unflinching portrayal truly offers a stirring parallel to the desperate last walk of Jesus to His own self-sacrifice on the Cross at Calvary. Writer-director John Michael McDonagh may depict a world with sin in it, but he does so with tasteful discretion and by showing that the wages of sin are depression and misery, as those who taunt the priest with their bad behavior and cruel comments all wind up miserable, while those who strive for redemption or forgiveness attain some level of happiness.
Throughout the movie, Gleeson delivers an incredible and timelessly strong performance that fully deserves Oscar consideration, as does the entire movie for Best Picture, Directing and Screenplay honors. Like Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”, this is a movie that deals with harsh subjects and imagery (though nowhere near the violence of “Passion”), but one that needs to travel its troubled path to redemption.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.