There is a story told about the famously difficult poet T. S. Eliot. When a student asked him about his poem Ash Wednesday, “what do you mean by the line: ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree’?”, Eliot is said to have replied, “I mean, ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree’”.
As a critical insight, it mightn’t serve you well in an English exam. But there is a sense in which art is simply non-reducible; that is, the effort to explain is to explain away, to diminish or even destroy. We murder to dissect, in the words of an older poet.
I feel a bit this way about reviewing Calvary. It’s a grim, funny, and carefully layered film, and my trepidation as I make the hazardous attempt is stronger than usual; I worry that anything other than the full experience of watching the movie yourself will be comparatively false, will necessarily misrepresent and mislead. It is what it is, and you should go see it.
Having got that disclaimer out of the way, here’s to blithely barging in where wiser souls might fear to tread. Calvary, a kind of follow-up to the 2011 film The Guard (also directed by John Michael McDonagh, and with multiple casting overlaps), is a meditation on the church abuse scandal in Ireland and its many and devastating reverberations. (And so the misrepresentations begin. Really it’s “about” small-town life, death and despair, goodness, violence, blame and (maybe) forgiveness. About how people collide with each other, deliberately or blindly, and the damage they inflict or absorb, or fail to absorb and instead transmit in unpredictable ways.)
The film’s opening gambit has Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) receiving an unusual confession: a troubled parishioner delivers a matter-of-fact death threat through the confessional’s grille. He proposes Sunday week, down on the beach of their west coast Irish town, as a reasonable time and place for the encounter (“I’ll give you enough time to put your house in order”). In the time that elapses between threat and confrontation, Lavelle goes quietly about his usual round of pastoral duties, both the worth and the bizarreness of which are thrown into stark relief against the backdrop of the gathering storm.
The premise of the film, which starts out darkly comic but increasingly becomes just dark, is that Lavelle is a good priest, bearing the burdens not only of his flock but of the past wrongs – real and perceived – of his church. “There’s no point in killing a bad priest”, his self-appointed assassin explains, “but killing a good one – that’d be a shock”. Each inhabitant of this town seems more screwed up than the last, from Dylan Moran’s portrayal of the hilarious but practically unhinged Fitzgerald, representative of the financial sector and its most egomaniacal excesses, to the unhappy, unfaithful, and abused wife; the male prostitute; and the convicted serial child killer, a former pupil of Lavelle’s.
Lavelle neither flinches nor fumes as his parishioners unload on him their past and ongoing trauma, their desires for violence, their profound grief or their nihilism. Unlike his fellow priests, who feature in the film as relatively shallow and bloodless, Lavelle’s faith is an authentic and expansive thing, neither naïve nor harsh. He is no saint, but his goodness – no bland respectability, but a real and positive and complex goodness – coupled with his office make him a magnet for the blame, fear, discontent, and other private hells of those around him.
Aptly, as a meditation on Calvary, the film commingles beauty with horror. Drawing the poison from others and absorbing it himself; bowing beneath the impossible load of his church’s failings; Lavelle enacts what it means to be good and to be willingly tainted with great evil. One of the film’s most poignant moments sees him strike up a conversation with a teenage girl on holiday who happens to be walking beside him in a local laneway; her father, driving up and bundling her into the car, reacts to the scene and to Lavelle with terrible, and painfully understandable, suspicion. His priest’s cassock draws down on him the wrath earned by others.
Calvary is both place and event: the hill outside of Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified, and the mystery of impugned innocence swallowing up guilt and hurt and evil properly belonging to others. Similarly, in Calvary, place is elemental. Though systemic sexual abuse is the collective shame of many churches in many countries, this is an Irish film about Irish demons. Ireland has, until very recently, so closely identified itself with the Catholic Church that the abuse scandal is there a uniquely national ordeal, and Calvary’s setting – the chill (summer?!) wind, the grey, the green, the desolate, restless North Atlantic – even the sometimes charming, sometimes taunting lilt of the accents – is bound up with its dive into the depths and darkness of human suffering.
Devastating and very tentatively liberating, the parable of Calvary is irreducible to explanations, much less moral conclusions. It seems, intuitively, that the best interpreter of work like this is other work like this. As an oblique comment on the film’s desperation and oh-so-slender, subdued hope, then, I relinquish the burden of last words to (once again) Eliot’s Ash Wednesday:
And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us
Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.
Dr Natasha Moore is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. She has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge.