Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Film Review: Calvary

Zero and I saw this film recently, and herewith my thoughts on it.

SIGNIS (the World Catholic Association for Communication) reviewed the film favourably -  Calvary - and it will be worthwhile to read their review before your continue reading my post.

An aspect of the film that the SIGNIS review does not address is that of the sense in which it is a humorous film. The online review from the Independent, for example, has a heading that refers to the film as a "dark religious comedy"; other reviews have likened its humour to the "dark humour" of an earlier film by the same director, The Guard, a film that I have not seen. Zero and I saw the film in a cinema with somewhere around 50 people. My estimate is that just a quarter of those, at most, laughed at some point during the film; and I was not convinced that the points at which they laughed reflected any credit on them for laughing.

Much of the humour lay in portrayals of a priest being confronted, deliberately and facetiously, with the wrongdoing of the person in front of him. So, for example, in the scene with the portrait described in the Independent review, the film maker seems to have delighted in actually showing the "local squire" (to use the terms of the review) relieving himself over the painting as the camera shot at the same time showed the priest. Whilst there is in this section of the film a deeper reflection to be made about the nature of wealth (see below), nevertheless its portrayal in a manner that represents deliberate affront to the priest typifies the calibre of the humour in the film.

I can see that a film maker might not have a high regard for the priesthood and the Catholic Church and that the situation of both in Ireland provides a particular context for that. It makes sense that such a film maker might portray in his work that lack of regard. That is one thing. The really fundamental question I have with regard to Calvary, though, is: can this lack of regard be justly represented in the form of humour just described? Is it really legitimate for the film maker to expect people in cinemas to laugh at it? Does it in fact represent an affront, not to the priest as priest, but to the priest as a human person like any other, and therefore also an affront to the cinema goer who is expected to find it funny?

A particular scene that has prompted my sense of objection in this regard is that where, as the priest visits an accident victim in hospital to administer the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick (referred to in the film as the "last rites"), he is confronted by the atheistic doctor. My own experience of the medical profession is that they are very respectful of the role of chaplains in hospitals; and, as Zero pointed out, what is portrayed in this scene certainly would not happen in Ireland, let alone any other country. This scene struck me as being particularly gratuitous.

If you have seen the film yourself, you will realise at this point that I rather lost the plot - perhaps literally! Within the plot line of the film, all these affronts to the parish priest are intended to create the possibility in the mind of the cinema goer that just about every other resident of the parish is a possibility for the would be assassin. I was too busy thinking about the issues above to notice the plot.

There is some comparison between Calvary and George Bernanos' Diary of a Country Priest. The visit of the parish priest to the house of the local "squire", and its dialogue, has its parallel's in the Cure's visit to the Comtesse in Bernanos' novel. But I thought that the Bernanos was far superior in its human and religious insight. The visits of the priest to his bishop, too, has a very loose parallel to the encounters between the Cure and his mentor. And the whisky and beer of the priests drinking session parallel the wine of the Cure. Perhaps both film and book portray the encounter between good and evil in the concrete, everyday life of a priest -  the film however exaggerating the latter to the point of the grotesque. The comparison really is very limited.

The film has a definitely Irish character. The willingness of the parish priest to intervene in the marital (and love) affairs of his flock reflects a controlling aspect of Catholic culture in Ireland. There are references to the sinful nature of the economic exploitation of the "tiger economy" and the excessive wealth and economic collapse that followed it. This motif recurs in the film. The parish priest also displays a somewhat acerbic pacifism in a scene in which he opposes a young man's expressed wish to join the army. The way in which an innocent meeting with a young visitor on a country lane is so readily interpreted as abusive - and the sadness and anguish of the parish priest's facial expression as he realises this implication - manifests something of the experience of priests in the wake of abuse scandals.

The SIGNIS review considers the film to be one of the most sympathetic portrayals of the priesthood in recent cinema. In some ways this is true - the parish priest is the "hero" of the film. But what of the assistant priest? He is portrayed as being a little loose with the seal of the confessional; as being decidedly obsequious and mercenary at the possibility of a donation to the parish, in (stereo)typical Irish fashion; and his most memorable facial expression seems to be a sneer. Perhaps he is the foil to the parish priest's "hero" - but his character does not leave a good impression.

At the denouement, the parish priest is shot dead on the beach. The graphic portrayal of blood and brains emerging from the back of his head - shown twice, from two different directions - and splaying across the sand represented, for me at least, a final affront (to the priest? or to the cinema goer?). And since affront appears to be of the essence of the style of humour in the film, is the cinema goer not meant to see in it the darkest of dark humour? If the scene is not understood in this way, it becomes supremely gratuitous in its violence. It is an ending that left a sense of shock in the cinema, with people not knowing quite how to react.

A final thought, that is left unresolved in the closing sequence of the film. In this sequence, all the characters who the parish priest has encountered - and some of whom he was due to meet after his appointment on the beach - are shown one after the other. Have they all been abandoned by the parish priest in his death, or have all their cares been borne by him "to the end" in a sacrificial death?


Patricius said...

Thanks for an interesting review.

I had the impression that this film was made by someone whose association with the Church was both historic (priest wearing cassock continually in daily life, everyone receiving the host kneeling and on the tongue) and somewhat remote (Who in the Catholic Church speaks of "joining (sic) the priesthood" or "giving the last rites(sic)"?) I was also amused at the assistant priest reading "The God Delusion"- as if this puerile little tome might contribute to his loss of faith!

In spite of the anger of the abused character there was also little evidence of any real insight into the nature of the concrete situations in which such abuse arose. It was just "a priest" which rather gave the impression of someone writing about a phenomenon encountered at the superficial level of the tabloid press. Any perceived depth to the plot would, in my view, be purely illusory. The author may well have borne in mind Oscar Wilde's advice, "To be intelligible is to be found out."

Anonymous said...

I have just tonight seen the film and if you will excuse a out of touch English Protestant elderly male, I found the film life affirming and ultimately bashed on Christs teaching that all sins will be forgiven, if, we show Forgiveness, and that includes "The Church" and "The State"
Just my take on a brilliant crafted film.
All go well

Anonymous said...

I didn't read all of your review, you lost me about half way. Sorry, I think you missed much of the sub-text.

Before 'crossing the Tiber', I was a Protestant and fortunate to hear a sermon (I think they still call them that) by a student Minister on the number '666'. His thoughts were that as '6', being the number of man and thus representing his failings & shortcomings, '666' meant simply 'failure upon failure upon failure' of a life without God at its centre.

Every character in this film was flawed and many outrightly and sneeringly unpleasant; indeed, it seems a grim world in post-Catholic Ireland. Putting Fr. James aside (who arguably has shades of St. Peter), the only exception was Therese, the French widow, who kept the Faith in spite of her circumstances.

To me, the film shows the cynicism, barrenness and over-arching failure of a life lived without God. In the Irish context, how Our Saviour must weep that the Church He founded when he turned St. Peter into a rock has played such a hand in this sordid mess.