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J.A.A. Purves

Calvary (2014)

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/Film:

 

 

A noble, wise priest is told he’s going to be killed in a week simply because he’s good. That’s the start of Calvary, written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (The Guard), which had its world premiere this week at the Sundance Film Festival. The film, which stars Brendan Gleeson, generated solid buzz for its mix of pseudo-detective story and philosophical rumination. And now, you’ll all get a chance to see it as Fox Searchlight acquired it for domestic distribution.

....

CALVARY’s Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is a good priest who is faced with sinister and troubling circumstances brought about by a mysterious member of his parish. Although he continues to comfort his own fragile daughter (Kelly Reilly) and reach out to help members of his church with their various scurrilous moral – and often comic – problems, he feels sinister and troubling forces closing in, and begins to wonder if he will have the courage to face his own personal Calvary.

 

Sounds like it will be worth keeping an eye out for. Do we have any A&Fers at Sundance?

Edited by Tyler

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CALVARY was the one film I saw at Sundance but didn't review ... here is my post-festival review at Letterboxd.

WARNING: I spoil the entire film, down to the very last gesture (or lack thereof).

http://t.co/mNpaGvCrUE

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This finally is finally getting limited release in the U.S. on August 1st.  The reasons to look forward to it are accumulating.

 

Alissa Wilkinson, Christianity Today:

"... I can't tell you a ton about Calvary yet, but what makes it air-quote "Christian" in something close to the first sense is that it sees the grace of God as something that extended only to the unclean—the sick, I suppose, who need the physician, as Jesus said. You see this, and you say: that is a human, but a human touched by something bigger than them ... What sets something like Calvary apart (or a number of other films I've seen lately—off the top of my head, Short Term 12, or the film As It Is In Heaven, which I also saw this week) is that they do that empathy thing really well. There are actual bad guys in these movies. There are some good guys, too—but not uncomplicated ones. And, importantly, there is a feeling of what, in one of their songs, Over the Rhine calls the 'slip and grip of grace.' To craft characters and stories like that requires you to understand what is good and what is bad, but I think way more importantly, they require the writer to have a finely-tuned sense of empathy. Not just to feel bad for characters having a hard time, but to feel like that's you up there on the screen, to make your viewer feel that way too, and then to feel the necessity of grace ..."

 

Justin Chang, Variety:

"... A completely sincere work about the persistence of faith and the Catholic Church’s soul-shattering legacy of abuse, this literate, beautifully crafted picture should translate near-certain critical plaudits into a distinguished arthouse reception worldwide ... It’s not clear at exactly what point the film has made its shift from foul-mouthed village comedy to quietly devastating passion play; certainly the transition feels complete by the time the priest pays a visit to an imprisoned rapist-murderer-cannibal (played, in a particularly perverse casting choice, by Gleeson’s son Domhnall). Amid all the accumulated waste and despair, two scenes stand out for their extraordinary tenderness: a beachside reckoning between the priest and his troubled daughter (a superb Kelly Reilly), and a thoughtful conversation with a woman (Marie-Josee Croze) who has lost her husband but not her faith. Hope, it seems, has not been completely extinguished. And yet, as it follows the priest on the lonely walk to his own personal Golgotha (the seven days of his journey conjuring any number of biblical allusions), “Calvary” makes clear, with utter conviction, that the Church’s incalculable abuses have exacted and will continue to exact a terrible human price ..."

 

Jonathan Romney, Sight & Sound:

“... The director’s statement summarises Calvary thus: “The mise en scène indebted to Andrew Wyeth. The philosophy to Jean Améry. The transcendental style inspired by Robert Bresson.” The film’s coastlines and fields – shot by Larry Smith, sometimes in ominously swooping aerial shots – echo Wyeth’s landscape paintings, and one can see how the questioning of brutality and inhumanity might be influenced by Austrian-born essayist Améry and his writing on the Holocaust. As for Bresson, Calvary has a livelier tone than “transcendental style” might suggest. McDonagh has also described his film as “Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest with a few gags thrown in”. Gags apart, it might be more accurately summed up as a hybrid between Bresson’s Diary and High Noon – Calvary too climaxes in its solitary hero striding alone to his appointed showdown ... The film’s claim to moral and philosophical substance rests partly on the formidable shoulders of Brendan Gleeson, whose muscularity as an actor makes him more than credible as a man wrestling with the dark forces of human fallibility ... Father James is, Calvary suggests, the best sort of priest, one who has been both of the world and in it, and who has chosen to reject the secular life from a position of experience: surely a more robust role model for an endangered profession than the etiolated young sufferer of Bresson’s film ...”

 

John McDonald, Financial Review:

"... McDonagh’s style has both confused and delighted audiences, but it’s clear that we shouldn’t view Calvary as a work of gritty realism. The characters are all grotesques, more reminiscent of an episode of Father Ted than a play by Synge or O’Casey. Every conversation strains towards profundity, then turns and deflates its own pretensions. The story is peppered with literary and cinematic references, but can be enjoyed as the blackest of comedies, a mystery story, a morality tale, or a pseudo-western with more than a hint of High Noon ... McDonagh has cited Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951) as an inspiration, and the script even includes a sly mention of Georges Bernanos who wrote the novel on which that film was based. Another movie that springs to mind is Luis Buñuel’s The Nazarene (1959), which tells the story of a saintly priest whose good deeds lead him into one disaster after another. The episodic structure of Calvary is notably Buñuelesque, but where the Spanish director frames his story (as usual) as a critique of the Catholic Church, McDonagh leaves open the possibility of redemption. Father James, who is by no means a saint, believes that every member of his exasperating flock can be reformed. He takes the sins of the entire Church upon his own shoulders, being prepared to suffer on behalf of the paedophiles and hypocrites who have brought the institution into disrepute. The townfolk are not simply pathological misfits, but living expressions of a malaise that finds its roots in the deceitful behaviour of the Church, and the apocalypse of the Irish bubble economy. It’s a heavy burden for a lone priest with martyrdom on his mind ..."

 

Louise Keller, Urban Cinefile:

"... Plaiting strands of drama with gentle black humour, McDonagh has created a solid platform for the superlative Gleeson whose soulful, grounded presence is a compelling guide for a rich insight into the small coastal village inhabitants' sins and virtues. Like the pull of a quicksand, the deeper we tread, the more we are sucked in; this is a complete work that beautifully showcases life's contradictions and complexities. More satisfying than their pairing in McDonagh's 2011 hit film The Guard, Calvary is profound without being turgid, moving without being sentimental - and very human ... The imposing green countryside and expansive lonely beach make their own statements, providing a solid sense of place. Special mention to Larry Smith's cinematography with its beautiful lighting - the ever-changing shadows on Gleeson's face at a critical part of the exposition provide great depth to our emotional journey. However the film belongs to Gleeson, who grounds the proceedings with an unforgettable performance that epitomises goodness ..."

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McDonagh Interview:

“... at Berlin we won the Ecumenical Jury Prize, which apparently is for films promoting spiritual values. I think that you could be an atheist and have made a film that deals with spiritual values, y’know; it doesn’t have to be something that’s proselytizing a particular religion or anything. But I think they’re trying to encourage films that deal with those mature themes, which is a good thing I suppose. We don’t really see them anymore, which is one of the reasons that I wanted to make Calvary. You either have the big mainstream films, popcorn movies, or you have the hip, ironic, art house movies, and I didn’t want to do that either.”

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I was a lot less enamored with the film than some of my peers, and after I wrote my review I noticed that Victor had addressed some of the same concerns I had, so I went back and edited in an acknowledgement that he said it first (even if I didn't read it first), Still, I probably liked it overall a little more than he did...

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which states, "Is it a better film than Lucy? ... Of course it is."

 

Ok, Stop. Right. There.

 

Seriously, though, both films have their problems but also their pleasures. On balance, I enjoyed Lucy much more than Calvary, although I admired the latter. I just wish I had liked it more. Were I to choose tonight which movie I wanted to see again, it's no contest: I'd go with Lucy.

 

Now, I might find on second viewing that Lucy is no longer dumb fun but just dumb, while a second viewing of Calvary might get me off the fence and have me praising what I enjoyed about the film, particularly Gleeson's performance, and the acting generally. But I didn't feel like I understood the structure of Calvary's story and wonder if it's a Catholic thing. A week leading to a man's death. A movie called Calvary. How closely, if at all, is the story supposed to correspond to the final week of Jesus' life, and do I need to be aware of specifically Catholic emphases re: "Holy Week" to appreciate what's going on in Calvary?

 

Perhaps the parallels are obvious to others, but my answer while watching the film to my own question about how much correspondence there might be was, "not much at all."

 

But not understanding the conceit is OK with me. I'm more concerned about the film's structure; it sort of meanders, doesn't it? Was there supposed to be a sense of building suspense? If so, I didn't feel it, although I was curious to know who the assailant might be. But the film felt long to me, and I think that's because it hums along in pretty much the same gear throughout, until its final moments.

 

I'd also quibble with Ken's contention that "everyone else is a caricature, existing only to be a suspect or a temptation." I'd say the daughter is an exception. I liked the actress and her role, although I wish it had been expanded. I wanted to spend more time with her and learn what was troubling her, rather than experiencing the parade of bizarre, if sometimes amusingly so, characters that pepper this movie.

Edited by Christian

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. Were I to choose tonight which movie I wanted to see again, it's not contest: I'd go with Lucy.

 

 

Well, I probably would pick Lucy, too, under those parameters, but I refer you back to the thread on whether rewatchability is the best/only metric of quality. 

 

Both films wear their messages pretty close to the surface--are we confident that a second viewing would clarify or deepen our understanding of either? And since Lucy's (admitted) pleasures are a tad more superficial, they would be more easily enjoyed as such, imo, on a second viewing. (I mean, Gleeson might have had the slightly harder role, but, come on, Scarlett in a cowboy hat!)

 

Edit:

 

But I didn't feel like I understood the structure of Calvary's story and wonder if it's a Catholic thing.

 

 

 

Not Catholic, though my father was and had some education from the Jesuits. It seemed Catholic to me in the sense that it was more interested in situation than story. The narrative being a framework for a debate that you suspect the author would just assume have in the abstract but couches in story because not everyone loves a good theological debate. Hence my comparison to Graham Greene.

Edited by kenmorefield

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Hm. Hm hm hm.

So like Ken, I was reminded at turns of The Power and the Glory, but also Nazarin, a film I see in dialectic opposition to The Power and the Glory. Also of course Diary of a Country Priest, and High Noon, a bit.

Like all these priests, Fr. James is a good man who over the course of the drama generally follows his vocation with great resolve in an almost untenable situation, yet accomplishes very little concrete good for anyone.

Greene's whisky priest's fatalistic pursuit of the right course in the absence of any reward or even interior consolation was the mark of his heroic virtue; for Bunuel the futility of all his ideal priest's virtue was the mark of the irrelevance of religion.

And here? There are contrary indicators. On the one hand, the ambiguous ending can be read as an authorial lack of commitment. On the other hand, it is hard not to conclude that the film admires Fr. James deeply. He's such an attractive, compelling character; and while the eccentricity and perversity of his recalcitrant sheep amounts to authorial harassment of the protagonist, it's equally true that Fr. James is the one well-realized, well-integrated human being.

A piece at First Things suggested that while acknowledging the horror of the clerical abuse scandal, the film also made the case for the necessity of the priesthood. That's probably going too far, but certainly it makes the case that faith can be a component in a well-integrated interior life, and that a priesthood lived with integrity has something to offer other people if they're open to receiving it.

The thing I'm most conflicted about is Fr. James' choice to return to his parish and keep his "appointment" with his future murderer. It's not entirely clear why he does this or what he thinks he's doing. Earlier comments about Jesus committing suicide at least raise the possibility of this interpretation of his actions. Then there's the fact that he makes specific plans with specific people before his "appointment". How should we interpret that?

Oh. And what about the dead dog? The ultimate revelation on this point certainly plays as if we're meant to take Fr. James' antagonist at his word. So what happened there?

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Victor, Ken, any thoughts? 

 

I feel like I don't really have a lock on this film after one viewing. I have to talk about it on TV tonight anyway. Oh well. 

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Victor, Ken, any thoughts? 

 

Not really. It's one of those where I felt like I said everything I wanted to say in my review. Also, I try not to be too vocal around here when I esteem less or even dislike a film that others are wildly enthusiastic about since that has led to some hard feelings in the past. 

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I should have my review up in a couple days.

 

There are some big ideas in this film.  One idea, which I am doing my best to discuss, is what has been called "active love" or even, by Charles Williams, "the doctrine of substitutionary love."  It is this doctrine that I am going to argue in my review that Father Lavelle is practicing  - or at least he is trying to practice it as best he can. I'll feel more free to participate in this discussion more once that's finished.
 
Here's a taste of what I'm trying to work with:
 
From Book VI of The Brothers Karamazov (from the discourses of the Elder Zosima):

“Bear in mind particularly that you can be no man's judge. For a criminal can have no judge upon the earth until that judge himself has perceived that he is every bit as much a criminal as the man who stands before him, and that for the crime of the man who stands before him, he himself may well be more guilty than anyone else. Only when he grasps this may he become a judge. However insane this sounds, it is true. For were I myself righteous, it is possible that there would be no criminal standing before me. If you were able to take upon yourself the crime of the man who stands before you and is judged by your heart , then lose no time, but do so and suffer for him yourself, while letting him go without reproach. And even if the law itself appoints you as his judge, then act even in them to the best of your ability in this same spirit, for he will go away and condemn himself even more harshly than your judgement. But if with your kiss he departs unfeeling and laughing at you, then do not be tempted by this: it means that his season has not yet arrived, but it will arrive in its own good time; and if it does not arrive, it matters not: if not he, then another will do it instead of him, suffer and condemn, and take the blame upon himself, and the truth will be accomplished. Believe this, believe it without doubt, for in this lies the hope and faith of all the saints.”

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A flawed, yet gnawingly interesting film.

 

SPOILERS

 

So, Fr. James keeps his appointment with his soon-to-be murderer because he needed to set aside his judgments and learn the virtue of forgiveness. That was his self imposed test. The parade of gloaters and mockers was his Satanic temptation. Given the opportunity to flee (the brief Dublin trip is his Gethsemane?), he chooses to face his cross. 

 

I have a different interpretation of the sequence that links all of the townspeople in their various vices. I found this montage to be incredibly moving, similar in resonance to the final scene in Fellini's I Vitelloni, but with a different thematic thrust. All of these characters have essentially spat in Fr. James's face over the course of the story. For the moment, they are oblivious to the priest's death. But the news will soon break, and they will be forced to confront the meaning of his sacrifice. Some, I believe, will turn to God. Others will not. But each of them will be forced to choose. While he was alive, Fr. James was an ineffectual evangelist (despite his intelligence, his tormentors always seemed to have the upper hand), but his death will act as a catalyst hastening their personal transformations.

 

His forgiveness is passed on to the daughter, who will lavish it on her father's murderer. How will he react? The power of the final sequences is that it doesn't outline the scope of redemption, it only suggests.

 

Oh. And what about the dead dog? The ultimate revelation on this point certainly plays as if we're meant to take Fr. James' antagonist at his word. So what happened there?

 

Clearly, Fr. James has more than one enemy in the town.

Edited by Nathaniel

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Did anybody catch the Augustine quote at the beginning? So far I haven't been able to find it as I look through various pages of quotes.

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Did anybody catch the Augustine quote at the beginning?

 

"Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned."

 

After some cursory research (thanks, Google!) it would appear that this statement may be apocryphal, having been attributed to Augustine by Beckett. 

Edited by Nathaniel

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Did anybody catch the Augustine quote at the beginning?

 

"Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned."

 

After some cursory research (thanks, Google!) it would appear that this statement may be apocryphal, having been attributed to Augustine by Beckett. 

 

Thanks, I was beginning to suspect that it might have iffy provenance.

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"Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned."

 

After some cursory research (thanks, Google!) it would appear that this statement may be apocryphal, having been attributed to Augustine by Beckett.

Even if Beckett is the technical source rather than Augustine, I still think it's a great opening line.  For a film interested in wrestling with sins of commission, sins of omission, guilt, feeling guilt, imputed guilt, forgiveness, salvation and damnation within the broader context of the effects of an abusive Church, it serves as both a cautionary warning and an affirmation that there can still be hope.

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I'd be very curious to hear from those of you who are Catholic, in regard to what this review brings up about the seal of the confessional. I've not yet seen the film but I was very intrigued by the suggestion that this and other films often get it wrong about said practice.

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Not Catholic, but I'll comment.  The priest who fails to observe the seal of the confessional is a twit.  This is one of the points of evidence that he really doesn't belong here.  Fr. James stops him from saying any more than he has already said.

 

The part about the seal of the confessional I found more interesting is the discussion between Fr. James and the bishop. The bishop lays out why the threat does not fall under the seal of the cofessional, but did Fr. James already understand that and so was able to talk to the bishop about it or did he risk breaking that seal by speaking to the bishop at all?

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Joel, I found the review that you linked to be not a good one but I discovered a much better review linked in the comments by Sr. Helena Burns at her blog Hell Burns

 

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Looking forward to writing about this film. I was very moved by it.

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My review:  http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tinseltalk/2014/08/calvary-an-alternate-view/

 

My fiancée and I liked it a lot, despite a couple of grave reservations. 

 

While watching this film's denouement over the closing credits, was anyone else reminded of the "Wise Up" sequence in Magnolia?

 

Yes. It reminded me how, watching the "Wise Up" sequence in Magnolia reminded me of watching the closing montage in Three Colors: Blue.

 

Actually, in this case, it reminded me much more of the latter.

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Hm. Hm hm hm.

So like Ken, I was reminded at turns of The Power and the Glory, but also Nazarin, a film I see in dialectic opposition to The Power and the Glory. Also of course Diary of a Country Priest, and High Noon, a bit.

Like all these priests, Fr. James is a good man who over the course of the drama generally follows his vocation with great resolve in an almost untenable situation, yet accomplishes very little concrete good for anyone.

Greene's whisky priest's fatalistic pursuit of the right course in the absence of any reward or even interior consolation was the mark of his heroic virtue; for Bunuel the futility of all his ideal priest's virtue was the mark of the irrelevance of religion.

And here? There are contrary indicators. On the one hand, the ambiguous ending can be read as an authorial lack of commitment. On the other hand, it is hard not to conclude that the film admires Fr. James deeply. He's such an attractive, compelling character; and while the eccentricity and perversity of his recalcitrant sheep amounts to authorial harassment of the protagonist, it's equally true that Fr. James is the one well-realized, well-integrated human being.

A piece at First Things suggested that while acknowledging the horror of the clerical abuse scandal, the film also made the case for the necessity of the priesthood. That's probably going too far, but certainly it makes the case that faith can be a component in a well-integrated interior life, and that a priesthood lived with integrity has something to offer other people if they're open to receiving it.

The thing I'm most conflicted about is Fr. James' choice to return to his parish and keep his "appointment" with his future murderer. It's not entirely clear why he does this or what he thinks he's doing. Earlier comments about Jesus committing suicide at least raise the possibility of this interpretation of his actions. Then there's the fact that he makes specific plans with specific people before his "appointment". How should we interpret that?

Oh. And what about the dead dog? The ultimate revelation on this point certainly plays as if we're meant to take Fr. James' antagonist at his word. So what happened there?

 

In the end, I resolved my conflicted issues in the film's favor.

 

My review discusses the issues around the ambiguous ending, though not Fr. James' ultimate choices (I couldn't do everything). 

 

McDonagh has called the film “basically Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest with a few gags thrown in,” and the film name-checks Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos, whose novel Bresson’s film is based on. Like Diary of a Country Priest, Calvary is about a good priest in a small village where attitudes toward him range from benign indifference to contempt and abuse.

 

Yet where Bresson’s saintly protagonist was a wan young consumptive who could be wounded by something as minor as a saucy schoolgirl impudently flirting with him, Father James — played by the physically imposing Brendan Gleeson in a grizzled beard and cassock that makes him an even more formidable presence — is a battered Celtic warrior who seems impossible to rattle. 

 

Consider his response to that dreadful opening line: He doesn’t wilt or wither; he doesn’t fall over himself to offer apologies or consolations the man doesn’t want. He recognizes that the man wants to be heard, and he listens.

 

That, in essence, is how Father James spends what may be his last week: trying to discern in each encounter, in each situation, what is needed, what would be most helpful, or at least what would do the least damage. It is not an easy task, for while many people may need him, almost nobody wants him.

Edited by SDG

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