Calvary John McDonagh (2014 UK Ire) Brendan Glesson, Chris O'Dowd, Kelly Reilly
Viewed: Tyneside Cinema 22 April 2014 Ticket £8 20
Forgive them father…
Calvary opens with a quote from St Augustin about the fate of the two thieves crucified on Calvary on either side of Jesus: that no presumptions should be made about the fate of the first thief. A suggestion that inspired Sam Beckett's Godot. It is also the basis for the proposition that underlies McDonagh's film examining: the relations of hope to despair, innocence to guilt, salvation to damnation. And Calvary is a rare thing a film grounded in a proposition.
The core of the film is its 'Rock', Brendan Glesson's Father Lavelle, a good priest and a good enough imperfect man. The film's moment pivots on his performance: his physicality his psychic integrity his energy. And Gleeson plays out the scripted function of his role, that of holding the film together as a theorem of cosmic relations, like one of the old heroes of Irish myth.
The proposition that McDonagh's script puts to the audience is that an innocent has to die in order to balance the psychic scales of evil. Christ – suffer little children to come to me, died to save the sins of the world; Father Lavelle will die to save the sins of the Church that suffered little children to be buggered. An old story an innocent sacrificed in propitiation to the powers that that oversee the playing out of the life force. Calvary's script, in its mapping of Lavelle’s psychological movement towards his execution, is in step with elemental religious and initiatory ideas about the path individuals take when confronted by forces endemic in the nature of the world.
fear - questioning – rebelling – rejecting – chaos - understanding - acceptance – compassion - forgiveness
denial of self
Steps of this kind were taken by Christ as he moved towards the cross. In terms of today's lifestyle ideologies that stress 'overcoming' not acceptance, 'self assertion' over acquiescence, they are less than fashionable. But it is the way that Lavelle chooses.
But it is not just that the moment of Fr Lavelle that is unfashionable in an aspirational culture. The metaphysical connections that link his fate to the fate of his killer Brennan oppose Western rationalism. The purpose of a rational system of justice is to establish: that a crime has been committed, to find the offender and to punish them for their acts. These linkages are the crux of contemporary justice, the basis justifying law and punishment. Calvary invokes another order of Justice. Its explores another inner human urge: to tear open the curtain of reason and to find a more primal idea of justice. One for which Necessity not rationality, defines the nature and the form of Justice. Necessity as a quasi judicial formulation is of course derided (but of course often resorted to, in disguised fashion, by established judiciaries) but the derision betrays the fear of the friends of rationality that the forces that drive 'necessity justice' lurk at the edge of the shadows of our nature, ready to enter the light as soon as vigilance wavers.
The metaphysical notion of necessity is well symbolised by the scales of justice. The idea that there is such a thing as cosmic balance. That such a balance can be put out of true by events or occurrences, and that humans as significant elements in the cosmos can play a central role in the realignment of the scales. Human sacrifice stands as one example of the logic of law of necessity. A victim is needed: a victim does not have to be the guilty party. Sometimes necessity prefers a virgin or an innocent representative to rebalance the scales; another victim to mediate the reharmonising of our psychic and physical state with the cosmos. A restoring agent.
There are signs that not only in religious psychology but in our own basic responses that something of this response is hardwired into our brains.
McDonagh as writer understands 'necessity', and that it is the central idea in his script. But he seems to be a little embarrassed by it as a film maker. Embarrassed to the extent that this idea so cogently stated in the confessional scene becomes progressively overlaid by other images in the main body of the film, only emerging in clarity in the penultimate beach sequence. For much of the film Lavelle seems lost in a comic book world of contemporary stereotypes; abandoned by the film in a series of partially misfiring comic cameos.
McDonagh substitutes a new grouping of moral mutants to replace the old standby caste of traditional Irish Country dwellers. Father Ted's congregation has been superseded by characters transposed from the world of Irving Welsh. They are larger than life and scripted to provoke canned studio audience laughter.
The main body of his movie suggests that McDonagh hasn't thought about the nature of film: that you can't script two big ideas at work simultaniously through the same material without having a filmic solution. His idea of Lavelle and his idea of a 'Welshian Ireland' with all its moral implications, cannot just be spliced together as one entity. To succeed in interweaving two themes you need to think in terms of film, and how film holds ideas together. On the basis of Calvary, McDonagh doesn't understand this.
Glesson holds his ground amidst this Channel 4 type bean fest but his presence is too often swamped and overwhelmed. The film, mostly shot like a situation comedy, struggles to find a filmic form to make the encounters anything more than obtrusive cameos that disengage the viewer from the film. These sequences often seem little more than a opportunity for writer director McDonagh to flaunt his skills at one liners and stand up repartee, rather than carve the film out into its own space.
As mentioned above the delimiting factor of Calvary is the manner in which it is shot. It is shot like sit com. This can be an inflexible structure for a film with thematic propositions, as the material has no unifying hub; the edits flit from face to face scene to scene shot to reaction creating an agitation that is difficult to control. McDonagh seems to have fallen for the current fashion of interposing long landscape shots in films, so show that the film maker is in touch with nature or natural forces. In this case the conceit only leads to confusion in the audience, a feeling that they may have zapped the remote to an Irish Tourist Board promo. There are of course many ways in which Calvary could have been worked filmically: a point of view, a voice, a shooting style that invoked a 'seeing' in the viewer. As it is McDonagh took the line of least resistance, and the film pays the price.