Last evening I viewed this extraordinary Irish film, a one of a kind and I'm still absorbing its impact. Directed by John Michael McDonagh and starring Brenden Gleeson, this is the third film the pair have collaborated on, the previous two being In Bruges (McDonagh wrote the screenplay) and The Guard. Both of these previous endeavors were wickedly funny, and Calvary as well has elements of high black comedy. Yet the film goes far beyond it's moments of humor and becomes a profound meditation on the trials of faith in face of the terrible absence of God - in human society, in a corrupted church and in the tragic lives of individual men and women. The film has been crafted with a deep appreciation for the Catholic faith and the terrible trials that threaten it's present day existence.
Without giving away the plot (since this info occurs within the first ten minutes), Brenden Gleeson plays a wise and weary priest in a small Irish village, peopled with the usual assortment of eccentric characters and the usual stories of adultery, drunkenness, violence and betrayal. One day a man comes into the confessional and tells Gleeson that he is going to kill him in a week's time, the following Friday. He explains that as a youth in a Catholic boarding school he had been sexually abused by a priest - from the age of eight up to the age of thirteen, several times a week for five years. He explains that his life has been shattered by the experience and that there is no hope of redemption or healing for himself. Because the predator priest is already dead, he can't hold him to account. So the only comfort left to him is an arbitrary act of vengeance. Just as he was 'chosen' by the priest in an arbitrary manner for the priest's sexual indulgence, so now the young man will arbitrarily choose a Catholic priest to be the victim of his vengeance.
That is the kick start to the story. Over the next remaining six days, we see Gleeson come to terms with this threat, discussing it with the bishop and the police and his daughter from a marriage before he was ordained. We also see him dealing with an assortment of characters in the village, all of whom are struggling with their faith or cynically mocking it and Gleeson himself as the Catholic Church's representative. Gleeson has to deal with every conceivable and anguishing trial of faith imaginable and he enters into dialogue with these 'lost souls' with deep compassion, wisdom and weariness of soul. He is asked every conceivable doubters question and presented with all of the most sordid crimes of the Catholic Church, and with patience and deep faith he must try to respond. The film is the most painful exploration of the absence of God within institutional religion. These six days are the priest's Calvary and a more profound way of the cross in today's climate of doubt I have never seen portrayed so brilliantly in a film before. The film deserves its accolades as "Nothing short of a masterpiece!"
In the end, though the film doesn't dwell directly on the sex abuse crisis in the church for that much of the screen time, this is the most devastating treatment of the scandal I have ever seen. It hits with the force of a knife through the heart. The most anguishing le cri de coeur comes from the victim as he shouts, "We are the lucky ones (those who survived their abuse and lived to tell about it). There are thousands of bodies buried up there (and he points generally upwards towards the hills and all of Ireland). This is the priest's great challenge, to demonstrate through his living witness, his capacity for sacrifice and forgiveness, that 'God' still lives and breathes in the human heart, even if the fires of his love seem to have turned to ashes within the hearth of the institutional church.
The film was made with great sympathy and understanding for the Catholic faith itself, yet it takes an unflinching look at the terrible doubt brought down upon it by the unrepentant crimes of the institution. Yet faith survives in the face of the terrible absence of God - which is revealed at the film's ending as an even more terrible and compassionate Presence. The hidden God - hidden by the crimes of the institution that carries his name - yet still living and breathing in the pilar of fire that leads us out of the desert.