“Calvary” is the kind of film that leaves a theater silent at the final credits. It’s not the silence of boredom or a morgue, but the silence of people collecting their emotions in order to breathe again.
Friends who’ve seen the film, some of them already two or three times, have noticed the same effect. From the first frame to the last, “Calvary” has an understated power – a blend of everyday pain, faith, despair, humor, candor, bitterness, and forgiveness – that brands itself onto the heart with spare simplicity. It’s also the best portrayal of a good priest in impossible circumstances I’ve seen in several decades.
Plenty of good reviews of Calvary already exist. I can’t improve on them here. It’s enough to say that the cast – led by Brendan Gleeson in an extraordinary performance – gives us a menagerie of human foibles, and the County Sligo setting has a raw Irish beauty that few viewers will ever forget.
But it’s the story that makes the film.
Gleeson plays an innocent man, a good priest, in the aftermath of Ireland’s devastating sex abuse scandal. A late vocation, a widower with a troubled adult daughter, he’s surrounded by people he knows better than they know themselves, characters ripe with indifference, resentment and cynicism, sprinkled with just enough courtesy to mask their contempt.
Into his confessional comes a man, the victim of clergy rape as a child, who informs him that he will murder him on Sunday in a week’s time – not because he’s a bad priest, but precisely because he’s a good priest. The rest of the film is the priest’s day-by-day path through the needs and circumstances of his people, and his own fear, to a meeting on the beach with the man who intends to kill him – a man whose voice the priest recognizes, but does not disclose, from the very beginning.
This is not a film for the young or the naïve. But along with the darkness come moments of great beauty: the priest’s kindness to an aging writer friend; his love for his daughter; his awareness of his own flaws and his patience with the flaws of his people; his humor and mentoring with a young altar server; and an astonishing scene with a young French woman, widowed in a car accident, about faith, death and gratitude for a married life filled with love.
Near the end of the film is a scene – a telephone conversation between the priest and his daughter filled with mercy, reconciliation, and forgiveness – that stays in the memory long after the screen goes black.
The Irish actor Chris O’Dowd, who plays a key supporting role in the story, has described himself as an atheist and organized religion as a “weird cult” in recent interviews. But he’s also said that “the relationship I have with priests in my own life is very, very positive. Even though I wouldn’t consider myself a Catholic anymore, I wouldn’t have done this film if I felt it was a hatchet job on priests.”
O’Dowd may be the voice of a “post-Christian” Ireland, but it’s curious: Amid all the ruin, suffering and unbelief caused by the abuse scandal of the past decade, the witness of a good priest who loves his people can somehow, so often, remain intact.
Or maybe it’s not so curious. One of the truths at the heart of this film is that the sins of the past bear a bitter kind of fruit in the present, in pain, anger, and revenge. Hypocrisy never stays hidden forever. But the opposite is also true: Love also leaves its indelible mark on the world.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24). It’s the easy sort of passage from Scripture that Gleeson’s priest would admit sounds like a tired cliché, and yet he gives his life to it.
The result is an intimate, unblinking, unforgettable film.
Archbishop Charles Chaput, a native of Kansas and a member of the Capuchin Franciscans, has led the Philadelphia archdiocese since 2011. He’s the author of “Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life” (Random House, 2008).