Is it possible for a film to capture the horror of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church while at the same time presenting a case for the necessity of the institutional priesthood? Against all odds, this is exactly what Irish director John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary manages to do. Fr. James (played with magnificent presence by Brendan Gleeson) is a good priest, if a haunted one. He is a widower and an alcoholic with a suicidal daughter and a parish full of troubled townspeople in rural Ireland. One afternoon a parishioner confesses to him that he was serially raped by a now-deceased priest as a child, and as a way of taking revenge, he will kill Fr. James in a week.
What follows is a surprisingly complex, if imperfectly executed, meditation on the nature of sin and mercy, set in the epicenter of the sexual abuse scandal. We are introduced one by one to Fr. James’s parishioners, each with their own set of problems including drug use, adultery, and prostitution to name only a few. Their attitudes toward the parish priest range from begrudging respect to apathy to outright contempt. Every hackneyed anti-Church saying one can think of is used by the townspeople as a taunt against Fr. James: that the Church is only out for money, that priests are control freaks, that Catholicism has no good answer for the problem of evil. By contrast we see Fr. James doing the hard, daily work of the priest with dogged fidelity as he counsels prisoners, administers last rites in the middle of the night, and comforts a young widow. The film paints very clearly the life of the priest in stark relief to the world’s perception of what a priest is, all while allowing Fr. James to retain his spirited, gruff, flawed humanity.
The key difference between Fr. James and his parishioners is that he sees his part in the sinfulness of others—in fact, he sees the role that sin plays in the greater spiritual world at large. When a group of men at the local pub berate Fr. James for going to give spiritual counseling to a child murderer in the local jail, Fr. James points out that the murderer at least sought his help, even if it was with mixed motivations. “We talk too much about sins and not enough about virtues,” Fr. James tells his daughter. “Forgiveness has been highly underrated.” In the face of the mundane callousness of his parishioners, one can see the priest weighing his options—are such people worth ministering to, repenting for, dying for? Exactly what are his obligations to them?
When his daughter confesses her suicide attempt, he asks her if she ever thought about those she was leaving behind. “I belong only to myself,” she replies, and he thinks for a moment. “True,” he admits at first; then, without missing a beat, “False.” The trap into which the characters fall again and again is that of believing that their sins are no one’s business but their own. The townspeople admit, often with pleasure, to their own depravity, but with the air of petulant children who want to be told that they’re not quite as bad as the next person.
The film also offers several painful depictions of the changes in the Church since the abuse scandal went public. In one scene Fr. James happens upon a young girl by the seaside on vacation. As they walk down the beach, joking innocently with one another, her father pulls up in his car, grabs her away, and implies that the priest had malicious intentions toward her.
The complete betrayal and heartbreak that momentarily flash across Fr. James’s face speak to some deep, uncomfortable realization on his part: we will pay for the sins of others even if we ourselves are innocent of them. Though his fellow priest makes an attempt to underplay the impact of the sexual abuse crisis, Fr. James realizes that the faithful must be confronted by it, that the perception of Catholic Church in the public forum is irrevocably changed because of it, and that he himself needs to make reparations on the part of sinful humanity.