On the shores of despair

Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) hears the confession of a troubled man from his community. The nameless, faceless man begins: ‘I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.’

He is a victim of sexual abuse suffered at the hand of the Catholic Church. The institution that preaches hope and offers salvation continues to fail him: Father Lavelle cannot find the words to comfort or appease. Since payback is not an option – the priest who abused him is now deceased – the wronged man promises to exact his revenge on Lavelle instead. Killing a good, innocent priest – though it will not heal the physical, emotional or psychological wounds this man continues to live with – will, he decides, make a powerful statement.

The countdown narrative provides a sound structure and inside its tidy frame the drama unfolds. Yet to contemplate this film through the guise of genre is misleading – and to get caught up in the ‘whodunit’ mystery would be a greater folly. What lends the film an edge of the sublime is that it so beautifully and devastatingly transcends the parameters of its own story. The remote community, the ensemble of troubled characters in their distinctly Irish setting, and the critique of the Catholic Church are the trees that constitute the woods. Through the use of story and character, John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary contemplates something far more significant than one man’s struggle against a community that doesn’t want his help and that is determined to make an example of him.

McDonagh asks us why we consider continuing on with life when humans cause each other so much distress and devastation. The human condition is complex but if we are to live our lives while wars rage and individuals harm others, then we must look at ugliness as we search for beauty.

There are a number of ways to read the characters in the film. If Lavelle is Jesus, then Veronica (Orla O’Rourke) is Mary and the whodunit confessional becomes a question about who’s playing Judas. If the individuals stand in for cardinal sins – Michael (Dylan Moran), for instance, is the epitome of greed, so much so that he even pisses on Hans Holbein’s famous painting The Ambassadors – then the film questions who is truly without sin. Alternatively, if the characters are abstract examples of wrongs that take place the world over, the filmasks what or who is right.

The community itself is like a bubbling cauldron, with hatred, anger and malice simmering in the background. Unable to walk away from the pot, Lavelle gets dangerously close to the fiery coals, with his community forever trying to take him down from his Christ-like pedestal, even to the extent of burning his church. But putting a lid on matters is no longer possible. The truth Lavelle knows about his community is that turning his back won’t make things better.

So he tries to help. He even visits the prison housing Freddie Joyce (played by his son, Domhnall Gleeson), the town’s most dangerous criminal – a cannibal who won’t give up the whereabouts of his final victim. Even after a crime, there is no peace for some. The exchange between the two is confronting as Freddie recounts how his inquisitors want to know what humans taste like. He tells them it’s like pheasant – gamey. Lavelle’s persistence with the ‘worst’ of mankind isn’t about forgiving past sins. It’s about not letting go of one’s belief in humanity, even when we are quite literally eating each other.

Despite his stoicism, despair is always only a stone’s throw away. A recovering alcoholic, Lavelle falters one night and drinks himself into a state of wrath. He acts out against the people who enjoy tempting him with dismay, helplessness and fear, the sins he fights hard to rise above. But he is human, after all.

Having divested himself of his worldly possessions to take up a higher calling, and despite having taken vows of chastity and solitude, he still retains ownership of something upon which he can bestow that most treasured of human qualities – love. Even this, his dog, is taken away from him.

Ultimately, all Lavelle has left is his daughter. But she is not long for this world, having attempted suicide over, as she explains, ‘a man, daddy – what else?’

It seems that McDonagh is saying our relationships are so fraught with anger, malice and hatred that even if we don’t deliberately take the lives of others, we still find ways to push them toward death, through selfishness and disregard.

The final showdown, then, provides both the ultimate lesson of the New Testament and of humanity. Lavelle meets his maker on the beach. Though he hopes there might be another way – he even makes plans to help someone else later that afternoon – he accepts that his life will be taken for the sins of others. It is during this narrative climax that we are asked the most important question of all: with whom do we empathise?

It is too easy to take sides. What we understand and how we moralise stems from our personal values and beliefs. But it is unethical to say that one person’s suffering is greater than another’s and it would still be a crime to kill Lavelle even if he were guilty. Nor is the killing forgivable because the shooter has indeed suffered abuse.

At a time when there is so much wrong in the world it is too easy to want to give up. It is too simple to turn our backs or point fingers of blame at others.

Seeing this film made me feel lonely. When our government is delivering asylum seekers back into the hands of their persecutors and while people die crossing the streets of Aleppo, it is difficult to participate in my easy, safe existence. Watching Calvary won’t right the wrongs but it’s a remarkable reminder of why it is so important to continue to fight against them.


Tara Judah

Tara Judah is a freelance film writer and radio critic, programming and content assistant at Melbourne’s Astor Theatre and a committee member of the Melbourne Cinémathèque. Tara's writing can be found at tarajudah.com and she tweets as @midnightmovies.

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  1. Nice review! One very SPOILERish comment: the priests very last words, while they don’t justify his killing at all, provide a dark logic to it. It turns out for all his compassion and commitment to doing right, he has been at some level indifferent to (the word used is ‘detached) the sufferings of young people sexually abused by priests. That interrupted final sentence nagged at me for days after I saw the movie.

  2. It’s a really moving moment – how disconnected we are to things that we empathise with but don’t really mourn. The distance between us and the horrors others suffer is deeply problematic and yes, I think the film captures that beautifully. So complex.

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