Friday, August 8, 2014

Some thoughts on Calvary


On Friday I watched the new movie Calvary starring Brendan Gleeson as Father James, an Irish Catholic priest. One day during confession someone comes to him and reports that he was violated numerous times by a priest as a child. That bad priest is long dead, so he will now respond to his violation by killing Father James, a good priest, in the span of about a week at a certain spot. The rest of the film follows Fr. James as he deals with the problems of his parish, as well as those of his unbelieving fellow villagers, all the while aware that he is inching nearer and nearer to his own death. In the meantime, too, his daughter who had attempted suicide comes to spend a few days with him.

I really enjoyed the film; it is an entertaining and enjoyable watch. But more than that, I enjoyed it because of the favorable portrayal of a Catholic priest. Though with certainty the film is right to point out the failings of the Catholic church in the past, at the same time Fr. James is perhaps one of the only characters in the town who's got a good heart and a normal, sane mind. He is insightful and Christian without spouting empty platitudes that everyone is expecting. He has a good heart and truly does no wrong.

Precisely because Fr. James is good, and the priest who'd violated his would-be murderer was bad, the film is therefore called Calvary. Is Fr. James willing to die for someone who was a heinous sinner? That previous priest got off without major consequence; he died old and happy, as far as anyone knows. Is Fr. James going to be willing to climb up his own personal Calvary hill and take the death of another in his own person?

Of course closely related is the question of faith. Is Fr. James's faith real? During the film, a Frenchman and his wife get into a horrific car accident. The Frenchman dies but the woman is unscathed; Fr. James performs the last rites for the man and then spends some time discussing with the woman in the chapel. They talk about how evil can occur randomly, seemingly without any reason whatsoever. Some persons, Fr. James notes, lose their faith over that. The Frenchwoman responds that such a faith must have been mighty weak to be so easily shaken and destroyed. Fr. James responds that some persons have faith only because of the fear of death; if that's all there is to a person's faith, it will no doubt easily be undone by the confrontation with death itself.

But then we pose the question to Fr. James: is your faith real? Is your faith a futile attempt to escape death, or is it something deeper than that? Will your own potential death be the end of your faith?

I very much enjoyed the film. It touches upon deep theological and philosophical issues, to be sure, but without becoming cumbersome or heavy-handed. It is entertaining, fantastically acted -- and I mean fantastically, especially in the massively impressive ending of the film -- and intelligently written. I highly recommend it.