The other is that the film can get away with some of its more outlandish characterizations because it doesn’t have both feet firmly planted in realism to begin with. The movie is clearly an allegory. The title and the setup blatantly put the priest in a Christ-like role as he has been singled out to suffer for sins he didn’t commit. And yet, he continues on, doggedly attempting to serve those who reject him.
"Calvary" doesn’t let the audience completely off the hook with its allegory, though. In one of the film’s most gut-wrenching scenes, reality is brought crashing in as Father James stumbles across a young girl meandering along a country road. The two walk innocently together for a short ways, cracking jokes with one another until the girl’s father arrives and angrily demands she immediately get in the car. The father’s withering look of disgust and accusation combined with James’ expression of realization and sorrow say more about what the abuse scandal has done to the priesthood than most words ever could.
With scenes like that, the movie can be a tough watch for faithful Catholics. It’s hard to see a good priest, even a fictional one, be the target for so much concentrated hatred. Like in some primal scream therapy session, the film allows laymen to vent their pent-up anger in whatever form they choose. Their accusations towards the Church—some true, some false (is that urban legend about Nazi collaboration ever going to go away)—are left mostly unchallenged. There were a number of moments the volunteer catechist inside me wanted to jump out of my seat and scream, “Now wait just a minute!”
But Father James takes a different route. He willingly takes all of the villagers’ verbal blows on himself while attempting to minister to the needs of their souls. That’s not to say James doesn’t have his moment in the garden, so to speak. As the week nears its end and the violence against him moves from the mental to the physical, the priest momentarily falters in his resolve.
And yet, even in these dark moments, the film provides Father James with some hints of grace. After performing the last rites for a dying French tourist, James has a conversation with the man’s wife and realizes there are still people in the world who believe and whose faith lets them see the light even in life’s darkest times. Just as important is the phone call he receives from his daughter and their discussion of virtue and forgiveness. They are small moments, to be sure, but welcome ones, and they are crucial to understanding the final minutes of the movie in any hopeful way.
"Calvary" isn’t going to be a film for everyone. It is not the feel good movie of the Summer. It’s pointed in its criticisms of those within the Church, it’s not too fond of all the people outside the Church either, and what little humor it has never leaves the gallows.
But for me, at least I was left with the distinct impression that, much like the inhabitants of the small town it depicts, the movie really wants the Church to be there. It just wants Her to follow Her own teachings a little closer, because even good people can do better. And if the final scene means what I think it means, what I want it to mean, then there is hope, even in the ugliest of places.
In a world he didn’t create, in a time he didn’t choose, one man looks for signs of God in the world by… watching movies. When he’s not reviewing new releases for Aleteia, David Ives spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.