Calvary: film review states it’s an eye opener

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ESH received the following review from Catholic author Tomas Ryan and shares it in its entirety with the express and full permission of the author.

Calvary Reviewed
by Tomás Ryan
Columbus, OH


In order to avoid sitting through some excruciating previews, I usually try to show up late to the movie theatre.   Last month, I failed to do that and I saw a preview of Calvary starring Brendan Gleeson as Fr. James Lavelle.   I first noticed Gleeson in his portrayal of Gerry Boyle in The Guard a farcical comedy about a bumbling anti-hero, with few scruples, who rises to the occasion with courage when big city evil comes to his backwater town.
The preview introduces a man, through the anonymity of the confessional, who claims to have been sexually abused by a priest who is now dead.   He advises Fr. Lavelle that he is going to kill him in a week not because he is guilty but rather because he is good.  Given the hostility of the film industry to the Faith, viewers could be excused for assuming that this will be just another attempt to drag the Church through the mud or to at least make a plea for a married clergy.   Nothing could be further from the truth.
 While the film makes no excuses for the sex abuse scandals in the Irish Church, it makes it incredibly difficult for the Church’s critics to put the blame where they want it.   The film is a punch in the face and has the potential to reshape the entire paradigm for how the world sees the priesthood in light of the abuse that the media feed on.
 In this review, I’ll try my best not to divulge too much of the plot because, at the risk of sounding blasphemous or hyperbolic, I have to admit that this film affected me as much as Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. True,  I knew how The Passion was supposed to unfold.  That is why I don’t want to deprive the readers of the experience of being in the theatre during the unexpected climax, through the denouement and  credits and being able to hear the proverbial pin drop.  Instead, I’ll try to focus on describing Fr. Lavelle and his strange environment for it is in attacking the priesthood that the enemies of the Church have had the most success.  Lavelle himself tactfully bats away Black Legends with a condescending wit but he is soiled with the bile and vitriol associated with pedophilia solely because he has devoted his life to a vocation.

Against the backdrop of the sex abuse scandals and a Church that seems hell bent on trivializing itself even further, a good priest is made to suffer at the hands of a society that has gone mad with its own depravity and the effects of sin.  Even those who still assist at Mass no longer believe.  The Faith is lost, abetted no doubt by banal liturgies offered in a spartan timber chapel better suited as a Quaker meeting house than for offering the un-bloody sacrifice of the Mass.  Perhaps, such a church was only built because, as part of the plot, it is burnt to the ground. Mercifully, the director has spared us images of Communion in the Hand or other institutionalized abuses.  In an artistic way, he shows us that true traditional Catholicism isn’t restricted to the Tridentine Mass.

The movie carries an “R” rating which it easily earns for graphic violence. There is also bad language.  Very bad language.   It’s the graphic sexual language which serves to prove that there isn’t anything a priest hasn’t heard in the confessional (or hurled at him by a passerby on the street!).  Viewers quickly see that priests are engaged in a War with the Culture of Death, an enemy that knows no bounds and doesn’t play fair. The only nudity comes with the appearance of an execrable sodomite who prances around half naked taunting Fr. Lavelle because  he can’t tempt him.  Nevertheless, Father sees the pain through this man’s facade and his irritating impersonation of James Cagney.  His offers to help him are ridiculed and rejected. Clearly, the director isn’t trying to gain sympathy for this lifestyle because  in The Guard, the same actor appears as someone arrested for having relations with a lamb. Appropriately in Calvary, he’s the personal whore of the inspector with the local Gardai, a man who has no faith and blames his own banishment to the rural west on the influence of the Church in response to his attempt to bring one of “those pedophile priests” to justice.

It is revealed early that Fr. Lavelle is a widower and a late vocation.
He is the embodiment of the Cultural Catholicism our neo-Catholic friends so love to impugn for its inability to stand up to the onslaught on the Faith forgetting, or never knowing, that when the iconoclasts came in the last century with willing collaborators in the hierarchy, it was the simple pious practices and devotions that they attacked first, not Aquinas’ proofs for the existence of God.  Loss of belief in the Faith followed a decline in its practice.
Failure to understand this about him, has led to the film’s panning on some Catholic websites. While his sensus fidei steers him toward profound insights on the mercy of God when dealing with a suicidal daughter in a way that will prepare her for greater hardships, it leaves him somewhat clumsy  in his rhetoric when dealing with an imbecile who comes to him seeking advice on seducing women.  It is one of several subplots in the daily life of a priest that go no where. But doesn’t life contain distractions that point to no end with instances where we give advice we wish we could retract?
No, there are just a lot of Catholics writing reviews who wouldn’t like a priest like this for
Lavelle is a living indictment to effeminacy and fecklessness in the priesthood and he stands in sharp contrast to his timid and politically correct curate who tries in vain to be hip.   Unlike Lavelle who possesses the same mettle as those priests who were among the Irish Diaspora and who went to the missions and died on battlefields and on the high seas serving as chaplains in the armies and navies of America and  with the British Empire, this curate looks like he would be more at home in an American rectory circa 1980 or hosting his own TV show for Catholic youth.
With the film’s name and the fact that Lavelle is told that his innocent blood will be spilled to atone for the  others who have sinned, it is easy to see him as an alter Christus appreciated by some, rejected and spat upon by others. And yet, although essentially good, there are constant reminders that, unseen to many, he has so many flaws he can’t be the priest he wants to be.  He is a very human priest with human failings.  At his lowest, he turns to violence and the bottle. He knows the nature of sin and is conversant in it’s vocabulary.  As has been said of Matin Luther, he possesses a tongue that could turn the air blue.  To me, Peter is a better analogy right down to the moment he hangs up his cassock and flees as his execution draws near, only to return.
This is a brutal film capable of exhausting the viewer.  Wiser people have averred that certain cinematic elements have the capacity to destroy any merit a film might have and render it merely the occasion of sin.  In this case, they fall short.
I implore [Culture Wars] readers to see this film and  to consider the quote from Augustine in the opening credits when you hear the line uttered in the opening scene and resist the temptation to walk out.
This review will appear shortly in Culture Wars, per the author.

4 thoughts on “Calvary: film review states it’s an eye opener

    Daniel Auer said:
    October 21, 2014 at 21:25

    Decent Films gave a similar plug at the neo-Catholic Register

    […] Read more here: Calvary: film review states it’s an eye opener […]

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