I can tell you, but I can’t make you hear. Just as you can tell me words which give some shape to the experience of childbirth or fighting in a war but there’s nothing you can do to make me get, so there’s nothing I can do other than describe to you what it’s like to be a parish priest, to pastor a local congregation. For all the injunctions to walk in the shoes of other people, we all know that well-worn shoes never truly fit anyone other than their original owner.
If you do want to understand what this calling and life is like, then I can’t do much more other than point you in the direction of Calvary. John Michael McDonagh’s film is straightforward, funny and devastatingly true in a way that’s more significant than mere facts. We open in the confessional, Brendan Glesson as Father James hearing the confession of a man. The man, unseen by the viewer, talks frankly of childhood abuse suffered at the hand of a Catholic priest. He will cleanse himself, he tells Father James, by murdering the man who’s listening to him. Not because he is a bad priest or an abuser; far from it, in fact. Father James is a good, honest priest. Which is why his death will make people sit up and take notice, the unseen man says. He will meet him on the beach, a week on Sunday, where he will kill the priest.
The rest of the film is the priest’s journey through his week in the village as he prepares for the day at hand. Some of the week is taken up with trying to identify the source of the threat; some of it with the normal warp and weft of pastoral life. It’s part murder-mystery (before the murder); it’s part comic drama about rural life; it’s all a deep and truthful meditation on faith and calling.
The film is very specifically Catholic, with its storyline fuelled by abuse and Irish setting. It’s in this specificity, though, that the film finds a more general power which speaks so deeply to a missional Anglican-Evangelical-Charismatic priest in Cape Town. Little grace notes in the film’s details were at once desperately funny and so painfully real as to be unwatchable. It’s in the bland ineffectiveness of denominational officials presented with crisis; the wearying sense of superiority of those who earn more in a week than you do in a year; the desperate sense of smug exclusivity so many on the fringe of or outside the church exhibit towards you because of your collar, and do so thinking you don’t notice but in reality you see it before they speak. It’s in the way the priest has many relationships but no friendships; it’s in the desperate need for a pet because at least the pet won’t talk back. It’s in the being ready to listen compassionately to someone who only a few hours earlier was patronising you. It’s in the carrying for people what they can’t bear themselves; it may be born with you by Jesus, but it’s still ever so heavy a load.
I could go on. The film is not perfect; not because of its artifice, exactly. Many great works are inherently artificial; how you handle the artifice is key. The one really false, forced note is the arrival of the priest’s daughter (not a plot-spoiler); just too convenient a moment for the film’s needs to be entirely smooth and clean. There are other occasional disharmonies, none of them serious.
By the film’s alarming and heart-stopping conclusion, we find ourselves breathing in the wake of a story that Beuchner could have told or (and I can think of no better praise than this) the one Eugene Peterson would make.
I can’t make you hear, but thanks to Calvary I can show you.
I rated this film 9/10 on imdb.com and 4.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com