The credits start rolling, and are met with silence – just a brief moment of utter, dark, stillness – before the sighs of people wiping their eyes and the whispering and the rustle of people finding their coats begins.
I recently saw Calvary – a film aptly named. The Christ trope is obvious: an innocent priest is told that he must pay for the sins of bad ones, and he must do so with his life. This is pulled off with great style; we watch as the suffering servant is routinely ridiculed and derided by those who he shepherds, has more and more of the things precious to him taken away, and eventually faces the prospect of his imminent encounter with the threat made on his life. It’s the passion narrative laced with some Irish accents and trips to the pub. That alone, combined with a good whodunnit in reverse and some beautiful shots of brooding landscapes would have made this worth watching. Even Brendan Gleeson’s forehead and shoulders deserve full marks for acting the burdened Priest, let alone the man as a whole. His patient interactions with an all-too-depraved, all-too-human village carve out an image of a man whose continued love for those who reject him is painful in the extreme. And it’s well written. Funny in places, heart-breaking in others, unsettling in most.
However, this film doesn’t stop there, and that’s what takes it from ‘good’ to ‘gripping’. Gleeson does not just portray a sarcastic modern day Christ, he portrays a sarcastic modern day disciple.
The lead up to the cross in Holy Week shows Jesus’ disciples at their most human. It’s basic biology, we are taught that all animals, humans included, must respond to any threat with ‘fight’ or ‘flight’, and the disciples don’t disappoint on this count; first drawing swords and lashing out, then running off into the darkness and denying any association with their master. Christ, on the other hand, transcends these instincts, choosing faithful obedience instead – even though it costs everything. Such is the transformation the disciples undergo after Jesus’ resurrection, and such is the struggle presented in Calvary’s protagonist. What should he do? Fight back, in order to defend himself? Run from the village that has rejected him anyway? Stay, in faithful obedience to his calling and the call of God?
This is also a film about forgiveness – perhaps the ultimate act of faithful obedience. Our modern-day disciple constantly forgives, and not just as a fulfillment of his vocation. Each interaction with another screwed up parishioner is an affirmation of his conviction that ‘no one is a lost cause’. It is only forgiveness that can break the chain of human hatred that leads to further pain. This isn’t light, fluffy forgiveness either – director McDonagh plumbs the darkest depths of humanity possible. Prepare yourself for adultery, domestic abuse, murder, cannibalism, insatiable greed, and, most significantly, the darkest sins of the Church. The audience, like the priest in the confessional, is forced to endure an insight into the very worst that humans can offer up – and then, somehow, forgive. So go and see it. This doesn’t stop at the passion narrative. This is also the post-passion narrative. This is the look-what-Jesus-did-so-now-what narrative. And that makes it brilliant.
image via official Calvary Facebook page