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calvarySo why do you not write about movies anymore, one reader asks? Well, I still see them, but all the ones I have seen lately have been either annoying in their over-the-top vanity (The Gambler and Birdman, for instance) or realistically trivial (Big Eyes).

One exception is the Irish movie Calvary. You should see it, of course, just to take in the incredible natural beauty of that ruggedly green island, not to mention to be moved by the film’s tastefully chosen and haunting musical background and the charming accents and turns of phrase with which ordinary Irish men and women express even horribly depraved thoughts. Everything about “Irish culture” fights against those spirited, spiritual, and civilized people reducing themselves to souls without longing. (I read somewhere that the Irish actually saved civilization.) The film inspires hope that the future will be like the past—such a people can screw themselves up only so much.

The film is a week in the life of a good priest (perfectly played by Brendan Gleeson). He is good because he is unfailingly sincere or authentic, and so he really has a vocation. He is also good because he really believes all the core teachings of the Church. He is also very manly in all the obvious ways. He looks as rugged (or at least as grizzled) as Ireland itself. He had been married, and a good marriage it was. He carries memories of his dead wife with him every day. He is a parent. Sure, by becoming a priest he sort of abandoned a daughter who had just lost her mom. And that wound has disfigured her adult life. Still, he remains “there” for her, and she never denies his love or his integrity, even as she mocks his pretensions by calling him “Father.”

But he is a long distance from perfect. He is an alcoholic who falls off the wagon out of self-pity. His “human-relations skills” need a lot of work. He was more moved by the death of his dog (he wept) than by hearing of all the lives wrecked or damaged by the shameless sexual abuse of pedophile priests. And he admits he really does not have the words he needs to comfort the abused. He, in general, thinks of himself as too judgmental, although the most invigorating moments in the film are when he fearlessly speaks the truth to the self-indulgently self-deceptive, when he calls out the lie at the foundation of every sin.

He also gives some thought-provoking if quite questionable spiritual advice. A very screwed-up, suicidal young man who knows he is plagued with a very disordered soul is thinking about joining the army to get some much-needed personal discipline. The priest advises against the choice of war (especially for that reason) as fundamentally un-Biblical. It turns out that the guy is so desperate mainly because he cannot get a girl, and he has exhausted the potential of Internet porn. The priest advises him to move to a more morally loose and women-abundant part of the world—such as Dublin or America—where his chances will be better.

No one who knows this good priest denies his integrity, which is not to say that he is well liked (he gets and probably deserves to have the stuffing kicked out of him) or is particularly able to share his faith. For those who do not know him, he is seen as just another priest. That means, for example, that when a girl’s father sees the good priest joking around with his little kid on a harmless walk, he drags her away quickly from a presumed predator. The good priest is stuck with being one lonely guy.

At his best, this priest is a Graham Greene or Walker Percy character—a sign of the truth or the love that persists in the ruins. There is no doubt that in many ways, after all, Ireland is a civilization in ruins, even in the midst of uneven prosperity. The institutional Church— especially in the context of the clericalism of the Irish republic—deserves a lot of the blame. But it is disheartening to see the last good priest on the eve of seemingly inevitable destruction. His church is burned down, and he is murdered in an effort by a seemingly incurably wounded man to avenge what another priest had done to him as a child. It is almost as if truth and integrity die with the last of the good priests, and his death seems neither to wash away any sins or be the source of anyone’s redemption. The very title of the film tells us in neon letters that he is some sort of Christ figure, but it seems to be too much to call him either a martyr or a savior.

But: The film ends with a glimmer of hope in the form of his daughter.

The most memorable moment of dialogue in the film is when the good priest tells his daughter something like there is too much talk about sin, and not enough about the virtues. And the first of the virtues is forgiveness. But the film also shows us that forgiveness depends on the real presence of the other virtues, on the loving and spirited capacity that we free and relational beings have been given to resist lust, anger, greed, self-righteous pride, cold indifference, and so forth. If the practice of virtue is not possible, then there is nothing to forgive. Being forgiven depends on contrition and the genuine resolution to do better by others and yourself.

Being judgmental without being disfigured by anger—and never forgetting that every wounded creature is worthy of love and open to redemption—is the way the film may show us out of the age of outrage.

The turn to the virtues, of course, highlights the distinctively Catholic form of Christianity, which transforms without obliterating in the light of “total depravity” the Aristotelian account of the moral virtues—the result of habit more than thought—that are the foundation of every good life. Aristotle, of course, does not describe the virtues of humility and forgiveness, because his account of the virtues was deliberately too proud to be realistically relational.

Forgive me for possible errors of detail here. The truth is I did not think the film was all that great when I watching it, but it has grown in my estimation as I think about it. I resolve to watch it again as soon as possible.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission. © 2014 by National Review, Inc. 

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1 reply to this post
  1. Thanks for this thoughtful, modest review. Please also let your readers be advised that this film contains a moment of graphic, and I think it is objective to say, extreme violence. In my own opinion such violence can only be gratuitous and exploitative, and it detracted from the integrity of the movie. Others might disagree, that such a depiction is appropriate in this context.

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