During the Easter celebration, when the risen Christ has thrown open the gates of Heaven, we ought to rejoice. The season of Lent has closed. We have been brought out of the desert. Our salvation has been made possible by the sacrifice of God’s only Son. Alleluia. Yet we recall from the Gospel of Mark that immediately after the Resurrection the women who went down to Christ’s tomb were confronted with an angel who told them of their Risen Lord. Rather than rejoice, they instead “went out and fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8)
This fear, trembling, and bewilderment, the historical reaction of the disciples on Easter morning, bears a hefty significance to the experience of most moviegoers at the close of Calvary (2014), starring Brendan Gleeson and directed by John Michael McDonagh. It was certainly the experience of my family after we watched it on the evening of Palm Sunday. It was not, however, my experience. During the closing scenes, a last sweeping glance over the subplots of twelve supporting characters (no small allusion to the Twelve Apostles, who were themselves a colorful cast), I dissolved into tears, while my loved ones declared the film disturbing, nihilistic, and downright awful.
As movies go, this dramatic Irish sleeper is by no means awful. Richly cast, courageously written and wonderfully shot, it is at the very least a testament to the artistic vision of the director, the talent of the cast, and the power of the medium. It is a dark film, but it is also a light film, a truth well-rendered in the sequence before Fr. James (Brendan Gleeson) goes to face his death. The morning light casts his rectory bedroom in clear contrast: the dark Crucifix on the blank wall, Gleeson’s black cassocked body kneeling before it. Calvary is, above all else, a well-executed examination of conscience.
Moreover, Catholics in this modern world must be careful not to confuse ugly with nihilistic. After all, Christ the King was crowned with thorns, and His Glory is realized fully through His Passion. There is nothing so brutal as the death our Lord suffered, and yet therein lies our hope. On the other hand, so much of modern art is ugliness for ugliness’ sake, which is certainly one manifestation of nihilism. Much of Calvary is ugly, a fact of which McDonagh seems very aware. The first words of the film are spoken by Fr. James’ killer after the anonymous man enters into the confessional, describing the first instances of abuse he experienced at the hands of the clergy, which Fr. James declares “certainly a startling opening.” This confession sets up the plot of the movie, for the man vows in the confessional to kill the innocent Fr. James on the following Sunday. The priest then goes about his clerical duties, knowing he will face his death in a week’s time; his passion week has begun.
Yet the ugliness of Calvary is not for the sake of ugliness. In fact, few films can boast so simply, truly, and beautifully hopeful an ending as the final scene in which Fiona, Fr. James’ daughter, visits her father’s murderer in prison. She sits patiently, waiting for him to step out of the darkness. That was, in fact, the point when I began to sob, imagining murderer Alessandro Serenelli facing the mother of Maria Goretti. While history tells us of Serenelli’s conversion, we get no such satisfaction from Calvary; instead, all we can have is hope.
While Calvary can be called neither nihilistic nor awful, do not be fooled: it is indeed disturbing. And how could it not be? The clearest takeaway theme of the film is sexual abuse by the clergy, one of the most disturbing scandals in Church history. One does not need an hour and forty minutes, however, to depict the evil of clerical abuse. The film runs deeper, penetrating a multitude of sins: lust, greed, anger, gluttony, the usual big baddies. What the story brings to light, what is so uncomfortable for Catholic viewers, is perhaps the most forgotten of the seven deadlies: sloth. From start to finish, the film fires right through spiritual apathy. It is in fact after Fr. James’ confession that he did not weep for the victims of sexual abuse that his killer shoots him point blank.
If that disturbs you—if that makes you uncomfortable—good.
The tension of Calvary is a tension that most of us, if we are honest with God, with others, and with ourselves, must admit that more often than not we have no idea how to handle. When young, misguided Milo asks if it is okay to kill in self-defense, Fr. James says, after a pause, “that’s a tricky one.” We are happy to submit to the principle of self-defense, but what about our universal call to follow Christ even unto death? Fr. James is all too aware of his own call. As the day of his death draws near, he seeks to get away for a while, just as St. Peter attempted to flee his martyrdom—and he, like Peter, is asked where he is going. As with Peter, this clear-cut question causes him to take stock of his vocation, to turn around, and to face his end. This end is not comfortable. It is the way of the Cross.
McDonagh intended in Calvary to portray “a good priest,” and he did. Indeed, Fr. Robert Barron said in his review of film that it “shows, with extraordinary vividness, what authentic spiritual shepherding looks like and how it feels for a priest to have a shepherd’s heart.”
Yet we the viewers, with no claim to the collar, must ask, who are we amongst the characters? Are we Milo, calling on Christianity for our own satisfaction? When we examine our conscience or enter the Confessional, is it for our own sense of relief? Are we Mr. Fitzgerald, in which nothing we encounter bears any meaning for us, as we are entirely self-centered? Are we perhaps Teresa, who understands that those who have lost faith “must not have been much of a faith to begin with”? Or are we Fiona, who after her attempted suicide asks, rather glibly, if she would have suffered eternal damnation, who is thus stunned into silence when her father tells her that “God is great” and “the limits of His mercy have not been set”?
Calvary calls our faith into question, not by portraying dubiously the truth of Christ, the evil of sin, or the role of priests, but by forcing us to consider where we stand amidst it all. That is the true examination of conscience. Have we answered Christ’s call, have we followed His Mercy, can we face His Justice? If this examination disturbs us, it would be foolish to dissolve into nihilism ourselves. Yet we cannot avoid this examination, nor can we run from suffering. We can always trust in God’s mercy, but we must also remember His mercy came in the form of the Cross.
As on the day of the Crucifixion “the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom” (Mark 15:38), so does Calvary tear asunder our comfortable depiction of our own salvation. It is right to rejoice in the Easter season, as we should always rejoice in the glory of God. Christ is risen! The gates of Heaven are opened! But are we willing now to make the sacrifice necessary to cross through them? Should we be shaken, as the first disciples were shaken, because perhaps we are not sure what we are charged to do? Perhaps we are so comfortable with the crown of peace that we quickly forget that needs first comes the crown of thorns.
This Palm Sunday, the day I watched Calvary in awe, Pope Francis reminded Massgoers in St. Peter’s Square to remember “our brothers and sisters who are persecuted because they are Christians, the martyrs of our own time.” He said, “They refuse to deny Jesus and they endure insult and injury with dignity.” Fr. James endured this way, and we should be prepared to, also. We must work, as the corpus Christi mysticum, to spread “from east to west the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation,” if not through the sacrifice of martyrdom, then through works of mercy, as Fiona faced her father’s killer. We must be able to look all sinners, ourselves included, point blank, thus to rise from our spiritual apathy, as Christ rose from the grave.