A Good Priest Is Hard to Film

John Michael McDonagh’s new film, "Calvary", has a gripping premise, but a shaky grasp on Catholic teaching and practice

The poster for Calvary is arresting and evocative: a cross of bullet holes marks the lead character, Fr. James–seemingly shot through the paper. John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary attempts to tell the story of a “good priest” who, while waiting in the confessional for a penitent, receives a death threat from a male victim of sexual abuse, whose identity is obscured by the confessional. The penitent tells the priest to meet him on the beach in seven days. The killer explains his logic as follows: no one pays any mind when a bad priest is killed, but if a good priest is murdered, he’ll have everyone’s attention.

Thus begins this sometimes promising but ultimately unsatisfying film, with Fr. James unpacking the veracity of the threat and the potential identity of the confessional-obscured killer. However, the faithful Catholic viewer will quickly notice that the descriptive “good priest” mean very different things to different people. Calvary is set in a rural Irish town in which everyone (except French expatriates) apparently hates the Catholic Church.

The film portrays Fr. James as a priest with integrity, who is more virtuous than his gossipy associate pastor or his sniveling bishop. But, when asked for counsel by a sexually anxious and repressed parishioner, he tells the twenty-something young man to go to Dublin, where he’ll be more likely to find sexually willing women. This is a good priest? In only the third scene in the film the associate pastor breaks the seal of the confessional to Fr. James, ostensibly so that Fr. James could go have a helpful talk with a woman who has been beaten by her husband or one of her lovers.

One of my pet peeves is Hollywood getting the seal of the confessional wrong, in part because it strikes me as something nearly all priests take as seriously as they should. It is one of the miracles of our troubled times that priests–regardless of background or theological persuasion–all believe the seal of the confessional is deeply sacred, and treat it with the gravity it deserves. Then along comes this particular movie, or an acclaimed television drama (see, for example, Season 2 of “Mad Men”) in which the seal of the confessional is broken so that the priest can go do something compassionate and helpful (and thus move the plot along, conveniently). Has no one ever seen Hitchcock’s I Confess?! So, as a film purporting to get its Catholic context right, Calvary fails.

Back to the plot: Fr. James’ is a widowed late-vocation who has a daughter from his life prior to being priest; the troubled daughter, played by Kelly Reilly, comes to visit him as this foreboding week begins. Reilly and Gleeson share one of the great scenes of the film, with the daughter confessing to her priest father, and they proceed to have the kind of rich conversation about faith which rarely graces the screen, covering God’s mercy, romantic despair, loneliness, and compassion. It is really moving and beautiful, and it’s unfortunate the rest of the movie fails to reach a similar level of profundity.

The movie might have been helped by depicting Fr. James in ways similar to Graham Greene’s whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory. Instead, Fr. James, again, is painted as a priest with exceptional integrity, so when he says and does things that no priest with true integrity would do, it detracts from the film’s overall effectiveness. Fr. James’ personal calvary is less compelling because McDonagh, though he obviously tried hard to get the context right, seems not to understand the actual beliefs of the Church. Forgiveness and mercy and sacrifice are touched upon, but they’re brought up and presented as almost secular values. An ancient Roman Stoic could have written most of this script, for all of the specifically Christian insights it contains. 

Alas, Calvary is a missed opportunity, because the basic premise is quite compelling: a priest contemplates willingly having a meeting that might lead to his own death–a death precipitated by the sins of others, a death he risks so that the killer might be saved. That really is a profound story! It’s unfortunate that an apparent lack of familiarity with the life of an actual Catholic priest, the sort of priest who truly believes in what he’s doing when he says Mass rather than being a social-worker surrogate, prevented the filmmakers from making an amazing film.

Calvary (2014)
Written and Directed by John Michael McDonagh
Starring Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, and Kelly Reilly
104 minutes, released by Fox Searchlight
Rated R for sexual references, language, brief strong violence and some drug use.

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About Michael Jameson 0 Articles
Michael Jameson is a freelance writer in Hollywood.