Winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, the Polish film Ida ranks not just as one of the best films of this year but among the best in the past five to ten years. The film combines good storytelling with fine performances; in an era in which films seem to get longer and more indulgent with each passing year, Ida also has the virtue of brevity. With a main character as a nun about to make final vows, Ida illustrates — in a year in which religious films were prevalent — the way that film can be both sympathetic to religion and artistically satisfying. The same can be said of Calvary, a film set in Ireland about a parish priest that manages to be by turns darkly comic, terrifying, and inspiring.
Artistic complexity is admittedly not a virtue on display in the well-known religious films of 2014, which range from the didactic Left Behind, Heaven Is for Real, God’s Not Dead, and Son of God to the blockbuster re-creations of Biblical stories by Darren Aronofsky (Noah) and Ridley Scott (Exodus).
Among the surprise successes at the box office was God’s Not Dead, a thinly veiled vehicle for Christian apologetics. The film focuses on a conflict between an Evangelical student and a philosophy professor who requires his students to sign a declaration that “God is dead.” The heroic student risks his grade in the class and the respect of his girlfriend, who urges him to avoid conflict with a powerful professor. Of course the professor is not just an atheist; he’s cruel and overbearing, both in class and in his personal life with his girlfriend, whom he belittles in front of colleagues for her religious beliefs. He is also apparently a really bad philosopher who cannot compete in debate with a philosophical novice, who manages to embarrass the professor and win over the hearts and minds of fellow students. A subplot about a Muslim family, which might have added complexity to the plot, only serves to make the message more heavy-handed, as we soon learn that the daughter is a secret Christian who is beaten by her father when he discovers her abandonment of Islam. A concert by a Christian rock band serves as the occasion for all the plot lines to be resolved in a way that is comfortably reassuring to a Christian audience.
God’s Not Dead embodies a pattern of popular Christian film. Such films are ponderous, predictable, and preachy.
Meanwhile, lavish spectacle is the order of the day with films such as Noah and Exodus, both of which take liberties with the original stories and look more like they are set in Tolkien’s Middle Earth than in the ancient Semitic world. Exodus is a bloated epic that loses its story in its lavish special-effects and grandiose cinematography, while Noah at least manages, as Father Robert Barron has noted, to offer credible portrayals of “God, creation, providence, sin, obedience, salvation,” which is something of an achievement for a “major Hollywood movie.”
Quite different from both of these sets of films are Calvary and Ida. Calvary, directed by John Michael McDonagh (known for The Guard, which also starred Brendan Gleeson) and set in a remote and economically depressed Irish village, features Gleeson as a Catholic priest, threatened by an angry and disturbed Catholic who as a child suffered sexual abuse at the hands of another priest. It opens in the confessional with the victim describing the abuse in stomach-churning, explicit language. He is out for revenge and has selected an innocent, good priest because that will cause more travail in the Church. Before he leaves, he tells Father James he will kill him the next Sunday.
Because of its theme of sexual abuse and its foreboding sense of omnipresent malice and violence, this is not an easy film to watch. And yet it manages to contain moments of dark humor and human warmth. It takes on directly the devastating impact of priest sexual abuse without demonizing priests. Indeed, Father James is an innocent who takes upon himself the sins of others; hence the title of the film. If he is not at all implicated in the crimes of sexual abuse, neither is he a sanctimonious martyr. Gleeson does a tremendous job of embodying a complex humanity. He is a late vocation who came to the priesthood after his wife died. Depressed and suicidal, his adult daughter blames him for abandoning her for the priesthood. His humor is dry and dark. He deadpans at one point: “A friend is just an enemy you haven’t made yet.” Pushed beyond his limits by cynical and cruel townsfolk, he gets drunk and starts a fight in a bar. Yet that event puts him on his knees begging for greater humility and courage in the face of hostility.
One of the difficulties in identifying who issued the threat in the confessional is that nearly everyone in the town could be a suspect. Father James seems to be an ordinary character immersed in a community of demons: racism, wife beating, alcoholism, and theft pervade the community. The church is burned and Father James’s dog is slaughtered. Early on, the film keeps an unsettling balance between dark, absurdist humor and an escalating sense of malice. His burdens are reflected in his increasingly grimacing expression, captured in close-ups, while his isolation is displayed in wide shots of him walking alone on vacant hillsides and coastlines. While he is not one to deliver lengthy sermons, he tells his daughter that people spend too much time looking at sins and not enough at virtues, especially the virtue of forgiveness.
Set in 1960s Poland and shot in black and white, Ida is a peculiar kind of female road movie, in which two women travel in search of clues to a dark, shared past, confrontation with which brings them closer to one another while directing their future lives along decidedly different paths. Anna (the brilliant first-time actor Agata Trzebuchowska) is a young novice at a religious house, which she first entered as an orphan. Before she takes her vows, she is told by the prioress that she must visit her aunt, Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza), a hard-living, promiscuous judge who informs Anna that her real name is Ida Lebenstein. Ida’s Jewish parents were murdered during the German occupation of Poland in World War II. Ida’s desire to discover the final resting place of her parents sets the two on a quest that forces each to come to terms with the past and with one another.
Investing their characters with subtlety and depth, the actresses give two of the finest performances of this or any year. The sheltered Ida would seem to be no match for her worldly and skeptical aunt, but she manages to do more than hold her own. Yet she does so for the most part by exhibiting a quiet resolve rather than preaching at or arguing with her aunt. Wanda is jealous of Ida’s youth and beauty; the fact that Ida seems oblivious to the effect she has on men only serves to frustrate Wanda even more. Yet Wanda is clearly affected by, and grows in affection for, her niece. Meanwhile, Ida becomes entranced with jazz and has her first experience of men gravitating toward her. Some critics have seen the religious elements in the film as accidental or secondary, but that seems wrongheaded. Just as Agata Trzebuchowska’s Ida impresses not through overt, dramatic acting but through cumulative gestures and facial expressions, so too the religious elements in the film are operative implicitly in the movement of the plot and in Ida’s final decision, a decision made in full knowledge of the world and its delights and terrors.
Neither Calvary nor Ida is didactic. They are less about messages than they are about complex storylines and fully human characters whose ultimate destinies are fragile and uncertain. That is what makes them, in contrast to the more well-known religious films of the year, works of art. In this they may also be more authentically religious. Calvary begins with a quotation from Saint Augustine: “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.” That’s a recipe for the sort of compelling storytelling that sees great mystery and ultimate significance in the events and choices of each individual human life. Good theology, it turns out, makes for gripping drama.
— Thomas S. Hibbs is dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. An updated and expanded version of his book Shows about Nothing was recently published by Baylor University Press.