John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary was one of 2014’s best films, with a central performance that is authentic in the rarest of ways. Brendan Gleeson is a welcome throwback to a specialized breed of cinematic actors: big, erudite men (Robert Shaw was such an actor). Gleeson began his acting career at a young age, appearing in the plays of Samuel Beckett and William Shakespeare. He was an English teacher for over a decade before embarking on a film career. Naturally, he has specialized in playing Irish patriarchs, mentors and historical figures, which makes his casting as Father James, a potential martyr, shrewd.
Traditionally, the role of a Catholic priest has been thought of as an actor’s plum. It is easy to see why, especially in the contemporary world. The Roman Catholic priest, with his vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, has willfully chosen a subculture that is shockingly in direct opposition to the precepts of modernism’s worldview. The priest believes, whether he inevitably lives up to it or not, that he has an existential calling. He does not take the honor unto himself. Rather, he regards that his is a vocation called by something inward. His rejection of materialism is, hypothetically, inclusive. Capital, desire, and ego, theoretically are tenets of a status quo path that he has chosen to reject. The priesthood is the quintessential revolt against all that which is temporal.
Alfred Hitchcock‘s I Confess (1953) features a performance by Montgomery Clift, as Father Michael Logan, which takes the psychology of the priestly vocation to an icy extreme. Clift’s performance, born of primordial method acting, parallels the film’s inert aesthetic.
Robert Burks’ shimmering cinematography exudes a Genesis-like potency. This, combined with Clift’s acting achievement, rendered I Confess a cult favorite among New Wave filmmakers and French critics.
American critics and audiences found it a more curious affair. It is akin to Gabriel Fauré’s music. Its appeal is primarily provincial; so subtle that invoking its aesthetic content proves to be a task. Critics deemed this theological drama from the Jesuit-schooled Hitchcock too inaccessible, an inside affair amidst the director’s populist oeuvre. With introverted themes of Eden-esque transgressions, annihilation of carnality, and dogmatic devotion, I Confess was too bound in the interior of an orthodox landscape. Had Hitchcock’s film taken a more commercial approach, Western reception would have been considerably broader. Local critics predominantly panned it as a weaker Hitchcock effort, albeit one with muscular premise, let down by a sensationalistic, compromised, and ultimately artificial finale. Additionally, Clift’s performance was acknowledged as undeniably intense, but paradoxically dismissed as far too subdued. His was a priest so overwhelmed with vocational angst that he fails to register as a credible parish pastor.
Set in Ireland, there are no such reserves regarding Calvary. At the heart of both films is the most heinous of mortal sins: murder (or a potential murder). I Confess and Calvary both explore the repercussions of the Church’s extremist perspective on the sacramental confidentiality of confession, regardless of any and all mitigating circumstances.
The contrasting approach in these films lies in their central performances. Gleeson’s rural Father James is no less erudite than Clift’s Father Michael. However, Gleeson’s priest has a pragmatic advantage. Although he is clearly smarter than the average County Sligo bear, he is one of them, refusing to adopt hierarchical or vocational aloofness, which is exactly what draws his potential killer to him.
In the film’s first and most powerful scene, an unidentified confessor steps into Father James’ confessional booth. Larry Smith’s exquisite camera focuses solely, and smartly, on James. The mysterious penitent narrates his reason for coming: as a child he was sexually abused by a priest. That abuse has made his life a living hell. The priest who molested him has long since died. Therefore, he has decided on revenge as a public protest. He is going to kill a priest, but not an abuser. That would be too easy. Instead, he is going to kill a good priest; a priest as innocent as he once was. The priest must pay for his church’s incalculable legacy of sin and abuse. The confessor has chosen to kill Father James. “I am going to kill you because you have done nothing wrong. I will give you one week to say your goodbyes and attend to your affairs, before I kill you on Sunday at the beach.”
By honing in on James, specifically his grey and weathered, open face, the lens reveals the nuances of the priest’s wounds. We learn the Father was married once and, after being widowed, became ordained. He is a recovering alcoholic and his daughter has recently tried to commit suicide. Yet, despite his own burdens, and the threat of being killed himself, Father James’ primary concern is for the suffering of his potential murderer.
A priest I know, my spiritual director, once advised a personal approach to the “Stations of the Cross.” Rather than looking at it as an ancient, historical document, identify with one’s own life circumstances when one has fallen down, been aided, or met a maternal figure during a Calvary walk. Likewise, Father James internalizes his Stations.
He goes to the bishop. Paralleling the patriarchal figures who turned a deaf ear to abused children, the bishop refuses to help. Mysteries unfold: “who is going to do it?” and “is he going to do it?”
Like the Christ of the “Stations,” Calvary stumbles. In attending to the priest’s affairs, we meet his parish and, for the most part, they are archetypes, not three-dimensional people. None of them are plaster saints, and most of them have grievances of some sort, aimed at the Church—which, unlike the padre, is afraid to face its own demons. A bit of gallows humor seeps in. Much of it is clumsy and unnecessary at best, but that might also be seen as apt: a silly lot caught in a self-composed, allegorical crown of thorns.
Fortunately, the elemental focus is on Father James and the fiercely green, rugged, and beautifully bleak Joycean landscape. Similar to the figures of Bohuslav Martinu’s opera, “The Greek Passion,” James is called upon to flesh out the essence of Calvary’s mythology with even his aging dog mirroring him. As he sets out to unlock the mystery of his potential murderer, Father James stops along the way, like the Johannine Christ pausing on his Calvary hike to address the crowd. Like I Confess‘ Michael, Father James does so laconically. However, unlike the priest of that earlier film, James, with pronounced pragmatism, convinces us of his anchored majestic spirit.
Among the vignettes that work immaculately are two elegantly fragile beach scenes. The first is an interaction between the priest and his troubled daughter. The second concerns a tourist who has recently lost her husband, but persists in her faith. The scenes serve as metaphors for Father James’ persistence, aided by Patrick Cassidy’s pensive score.
Calvary lacks a supporting performance with the ruminative intensity of Karl Malden’s co-starring bit as an antithetical inspector in I Confess. Yet, the later film benefits considerably through its 21st century, post-Vatican II perspectives of the Church, which includes that institution’s self-reflection, matter-of-fact reticence and soul-shattering fatigue.