The new movie Calvary, which opened on Friday, is reminiscent of the best works of Graham Greene — and not just for the obvious reason that its main character is a Catholic priest who has a drinking problem and is being threatened with a violent death. On a much more fundamental level, it belongs in Greeneland because it’s about how man copes with the evil that has been a fundamental part of the human condition.
It’s a highly unusual movie, in that the priest is depicted as a very good man. In recent years, because of the sex-abuse scandal and also because of other political agendas, there have not been many works of popular culture in which clergymen or -women have been treated as positive role models. (I understand that Mindy Kaling, on her sitcom that I have never seen, had a boyfriend who was a Lutheran minister and a good guy. If there are other exceptions, please let me know!) In this case, the priest is a big, rangy, earthy, and warm-hearted fellow (well played by Brendan Gleeson) who tries to offer spiritual consolation and encouragement to his small flock in an Irish seacoast village.
In the film’s first scene, the priest is sitting in his confessional, where he is confronted by a decidedly non-penitent man — who says he was the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of another priest when he was a boy, and that, in retaliation, he will kill our hero seven days hence. The film then follows the priest through his weekly labors, as he tries to do his regular tasks and figure out how to deal with his impending appointment in Samarra. The village is populated with a colorful and engaging cast of supporting characters, who collectively give him plenty of work to do.
The movie is called “Calvary” because its theme is sacrifice as the way of coping with sin and the damage that sin causes. (To solve the problem of crime, the guilty are punished. To solve the problem of sin, in the Christian understanding, it is the innocent who is punished.) Yes, it’s a movie about serious issues, but it’s lively and fast-paced; and one of its great revelations for me was the beauty of County Sligo, Ireland. One of the most beautiful women I have ever met was from Sligo; she was a waitress at the Irish Times bar near Union Station in Washington, D.C., about 25 years ago. The Sligo shown in the film is a lot like her: simultaneously picturesque — even pretty — and rugged; sparkling on the surface, yet with a very tough, dense core. I have not seen many films with such an accomplished, thoroughgoing sense of place that they evoke reflections on real people who might belong in the frame. In other words, the film’s Sligo is not a setting in the sense of a backdrop; it is a place, one that real people can believably come from. (In contrast, it is easy to watch, say, The Untouchables and not think for a moment that a place called Chicago actually existed, or that one might have encountered people who come from there; and the Dan Brown movie adaptation Angels and Demons doesn’t make one think of the real Rome or of actual Romans one has met.)
I was skeptical about this movie because, frankly, I have already seen too much cultural product about the priest-sex-abuse crisis — and too much of it cookie-cut to serve predetermined agendas. This is a movie with a much broader subject. In the climactic scene, the main characters talk about Moby-Dick, and the reference seems quite appropriate. This is a film about sin, the damage done and the price paid.