Darkness permeates the movie Calvary like a morning rainstorm. Aerial views of the imposing Ireland landscape are strewn throughout the scenes, turning the renowned Irish greens and blues into progenitors of impending doom. It’s a depressing palette for an equally depressing storyline, where salvation is expected to be just around the corner, but never comes.
One bad thing after another happens to the protagonist, whom I’ll simply call the good priest. The opening scene shows him at a confessional, with a man behind a screen saying that he’ll kill him in 7 days, because he was abused by a priest as a child, and desires to make a statement. As the movie progresses, we see his parish treat him with contempt, labeling him and jeering him as an antiquated, medieval man who’s “set apart”. His church is burned down, his dog’s head is cut off, and so and and so on. It’s not the constant barrage of not evil that most bothers me about the movie however. After all, Christ endured whippings, spitting, jeering, mocking, punching and eventually, crucifixion (our good priest suffered most of these too). But here’s where Christ’s calvary differs: there’s redemption at the end. Christ is resurrected from the dead, fulfilling the hope that he would come to save us from our sins. In the movie, there’s no such hope or salvation.
We see the good priest endure the evil taunts and sins of his people, and reply to them with heroic endurance and love. But we’re not given the reason for his loving. There’s only one scene where the priest’ faith is shown, and that is in the final scene where he briefly kneels in front of a crucifix, says a short prayer and goes out. When the killer asked the priest if he had any final prayers the priest replied, “I’ve already said them.” There’s no insight into the hope that the good priest has. We see him live and preach to his parish, but there’s no Christianity in it. What good is it for the priest to wittily reply to taunts, endure mockery and beatings, meet with his killer at the appointed time to meet his destiny, if we’re not given the insight on why his faith endured, and what, if any, is his hope?
All sorts of human dysfunction are on open display and entrenched in the wills of the townspeople. It’s unusual to see characters in a movie reveal their motives and thoughts as openly as this one, which is fascinating and shows the deep knowledge of human psychology in part of the screenwriters. Their reasons for acting out their evil are amply given, in way that is easy for the audience to empathize. It’s a pity that the same cannot be said of the good priest. We are not presented with any compelling reason as to why the priest behaves the way he does, endures evil with the stoic fortitude he does, or even the internal turmoil he might experience from dying.
The good priest’s daughter I think represents all of us watching the movie: saying out loud what a jerk this character is, or how much “shite” this person says, even if the priest won’t say it out loud. At the end of the movie, she visits her father’s murderer, and the string ensemble music hints that a good ending is at hand and thus she will forgive him. But the movie abruptly ends before she can say a word, so even this move for reconciliation is left ambiguous. I was mad the movie used me this way, I felt it mocked the audience as if by saying, “Ha! You thought there was a definitive, good ending to this story? You think all wrongs must righted? That salvation is to come? Here’s an ambiguous ending for you to remove any such peace you might grasp for.”
Forget about character arcs in this movie. The way characters are presented in the beginning remain the same at the end. This is in contrast to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, where every person who meets Jesus is touched to their core by him: they either entrench themselves in their sin or realize they’re in need of forgiveness. The good priest, through his actions and words, tries to reach out to his people but he never mentions Christ or his saving power. The word “God” is mentioned in some dialogues, but the watered-down context surrounding them could’ve been used for many kinds of gods and not specifically the Christian God. The Christian God has the overtones of King above all things, reigning for eternity and being the essence of love, giving up His only Son for the salvation of the human race from sin.
In all, Calvary is a beautifully filmed movie which I believe attempts to capture the passion/suffering of a particular priest who intends to do good. But the the good towards which this priest strives for is unknown. There is no redemption or glory in this calvary.