In the new film Calvary, written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (The Guard, Ned Kelly), Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges) plays a “good priest,” Father James, who lives in a small Irish town. When the story begins, one of Father James’s parishioners threatens him with violence as retribution for his repeated rape by a priest when he was a child. After this shocking encounter, Father James faces a series of aggressive and troubling acts, as darkness seems to gather all around him. Father James must also contend with his adult daughter, Kelly Reilly (Heaven Is for Real), who is in a period of despair. Despite its bleak subject matter, the film is also very funny thanks to McDonagh’s sparkling dialogue and a terrific cast, which includes Chris O’Dowd (Thor: The Dark World), Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones), and Isaach De Bankolé (Mother of George). Calvary touches on questions of faith, forgiveness, and our responses to evil acts. Calvary opened in select theaters on Friday, August 1.
MARY VALLE: In the first scene, Father James hears an unseen confessor describe his repeated rape as a child by a priest in very plain language. Since so many euphemisms are usually used to describe rape — like “child abuse” — some people might find it shocking, but I think it’s corrective. What was your intent?
JOHN MICHAEL MCDONAGH: That language has enabled us to detach ourselves from these scandals because we never actually think about what it means to be abused every day of your life. What that physically means. It’s a very horrific subject. Brendan and I were talking about the film Deliverance when Ned Beatty’s character gets raped and, maybe for men, that was the first time you’d see that in a film and you’d go, “Oh, that’s what that actually means.” But then it kind of went away. It wasn’t until the French film Irréversible, which had a seven-minute rape sequence in it, that, as offended you may be by that, it does show you what rape actually involves. So in that first scene, verbally, I was trying to plant an image in the audience’s mind of what it means.
The language that we read about in newspaper reports, it says, “He was molested.” What does that mean? That was a deliberate statement of intent where we’re saying this is what it actually means, and we’re going to do it in the very first scene. It makes you empathize with the person who’s saying it. So, by the end of the movie, he’s not really your typical villain because the audience should actually sympathize with him and understand exactly where he’s coming from. They should feel very unnerved by that final confrontation.
BRENDAN GLEESON: There’s also a sense of compassion for that man. Which, in a way, is enriching for the person watching, because you face that reality from the very opening scene. You understand that abuse is a lifelong sentence and that this man has been in pain since his childhood. When all that violence is visited on Father James, there’s a feeling of compassion towards the perpetrator.
MV: Father James was married and had a child, became a widower, and then found his vocation as a priest. I was wondering if he thought he was going to be stepping away from the world into a more peaceful existence, and then this gigantic, global crime came down on his head and he had to answer for it.
BG: His daughter, Fiona, obviously feels that he was running away, and she was deserted by that action. He, on the other hand, had a lot of demons. He had alcoholism to fight, and the loss of his own wife; he was less than present when she was dying, according to his daughter. What happened in the discussion between James and Fiona is that he wasn’t running away. He was running towards. He had a vocation, and he was committing with his ferocity. He was putting all that energy, all that rage into something that was positive. It felt to me, anyway, that it was an embracing of the challenges of the world.
JMM: Specifically, in the scene where he goes to see Freddie Joyce, the serial killer, in prison. He was obviously contacted and asked, “Would you go to see him.” Now, a priest doesn’t have to do that. A lot of priests probably wouldn’t. They’d say no, I don’t want to talk to somebody who’s so wrong. But Father James doesn’t run away from it. He goes to confront Freddie, and that leads to a very psychologically disturbing moment for him. But he doesn’t shy away from it. He never runs, really, until he gets to his lowest ebb, just before the final act.
MV: Right, that’s when we see him in secular clothes.
JMM: Exactly. I don’t think he loses his fight — he has a momentary, I wouldn’t say cowardice, but a Garden-of-Gethsemane moment. “Let the chalice pass me by” — you know? “Maybe it’s better that I just go and that will solve everyone’s problems.” And when he meets the Marie-Josée Croze character [a French woman who is widowed in the course of the story], he realizes that running away isn’t going to solve anything, that there needs to be a final conclusion to the narrative. He’s obviously hoping it will be a positive one.
MV: One of the things that really struck me about the movie is that, along with the characters’ biting wit, there’s a loneliness there, a melancholy undercurrent. A lot of the people don’t have anyone to talk to, they seem somewhat adrift, and it seems like the only person they can talk to is Father James because he’ll listen.
JMM: That’s a good point. I hadn’t thought about that too much before, but yes, the priest has to discuss things with them. Maybe sometimes, lonely people confront somebody who will sit down and talk to them. I think also, in our first film, The Guard, there’s a lonely character [policeman Gerry Boyle, played by Brendan Gleeson]. He’s too smart for the town he’s in, and so he’s sitting there alone with a beer watching a movie in the evening, and he’s got no one to talk to, really, apart from maybe his mother. So that’s a good point. There are definitely melancholic elements running through both films. I hadn’t thought about it, but that might be an explanation for why so many characters are aggressive.
BG: There’s a little of the chicken and the egg about the idea of embracing dissolution. There’s this embracing of honesty and “Let’s be clear about the way the world works,” and then “There’s a conspiracy and that’s the way the world works.” If you begin to isolate and become asocial and begin to hate the notion of what human beings are, you will isolate yourself. I think one of the things about the religious, the problems of the priest and the church is, even with the problems and abuse, what’s going to replace it? I think these people have found that they don’t have anything to replace it with. That’s part of their isolation. They actually can’t do it on their own, frankly; they need some kind of belief system, whether it’s religious or not, to sort of maintain the reason to live.
MV: I thought about that too, because the physical church itself is a place where people come and gather together and form a community. And violence is visited upon the town’s church, which as Father James points out, is not “his” church but, rather, everyone’s. And in that community is the priest, who is, ideally, someone like Father James who gives up his own life for others. He’s someone who is selfless and who is willing to listen. Catholicism is on the decline in Ireland, which is not strictly a “good” or “bad” thing, of course, but what will replace it, if anything?
BG: For a while there, the Celtic Tiger was bling. It was quite vacuous, and not very nice to witness, to be honest. There was a kind of vacuousness as to what people were substituting for spirituality. It’s still an open question. People are coming around to perhaps understanding that they have a responsibility to contribute to the answer. That they can’t just expect to be led all the time, that they have to contribute to a positive viewpoint and get constructive about the way they intend to live their lives.
JMM: And I think what we’re saying now is, after all the crashes and all the scandals, is that I don’t think it’s led to a complete negativity. I think there are more and more people seeking [something], whether it’s a spiritual meaning or a political meaning to their lives. Sometimes you have to have a great depression, but other, more positive values can come out of that. Sometimes you have to be at the lowest ebb for things to get better.
MV: There’s a phrase in the film — “For most people faith is just a fear of death.” I think that, actually, fear of death is the thing that drives consumerism, and maybe one of religion’s strengths is that it really makes you confront the idea of death over and over and over.
BG: I agree with that.
MV: Religion is a complicated subject to say the least, but it occurred to me that maybe one of the hidden strengths of Catholicism is its acknowledgment of pain, suffering, and death, going back to the notion of religion ebbing away in Ireland. Father James suffers terribly in the film, but, as a religious man, he seems to accept it at an almost cellular level.
BG: I had a parent who was very fear-driven in his religion, and it wasn’t necessarily a positive thing. It led to a less-than-aggressive attack on life because there was a fear of doing something wrong, which I don’t think is a healthy way to live your life. I also had a parent who was the exact opposite, and who embraced the notion of death being inevitable, and that love was the only thing that would make life meaningful — and generosity of spirit. I think you have to be careful about it being one size fits everybody. Some people are hampered by the fear of death, and the notion that you have to put your house in order in case you get knocked down by a bus, and they don’t embrace life, and they don’t embrace life in a proper way, and there’s a lack of generosity of spirit about it. Whereas when acceptance of death works properly, and it’s a framework, we can all benefit from that for sure.
JMM: I think specifically, with Catholicism, you have some Catholics who will go to Mass every Sunday and never really think that much about it. And you have some Catholics who … the whole way they see their lives and how committed they are to their communities. There are different ways of approaching it, and it depends on you as a human being. If you look back at the ’60s, the Berrigan brothers were very committed antiwar activists, and then, obviously, there were other priests who weren’t that way at all. So, within an organization, not everyone’s the same.
MV: The scene with Father James and his daughter, Fiona, forgiving each other was incredibly powerful. What do you think of the notion that forgiveness could possibly be a way out of the cycle of suffering and passing that suffering forward?
BG: It has to be earned [laughs]. I have two aunts, and they wouldn’t speak to each other for a long time, and there was a little reconciliation organized by people, and the first thing one of them said upon meeting the other was “I forgive you,” [laughs] and all hell broke loose.
Mary Valle is the author of a collection of essays, poems, and illustrations called Cancer Doesn't Give a Shit About Your Stupid Attitude: Reflections on Cancer and Catholicism. She is an editor at Killing the Buddha.