The film Calvary ends with the murderer about to speak. Seconds before, the camera tracked past visitors talking to inmates at a prison. The daughter of the murdered priest waited for him to sit. She picks up the phone receiver and he, reluctantly picks up his. And as tears run down her cheek, the film fades to black. You are allowed to make up your own mind. But it seems clear to me that she did not visit to spit bile at him. We have two choices when we have been wronged. And neither of them changes the wrong. Calvary suggests that forgiveness is the only rational choice.
The film offers up a wonderful thought experiment because it dispenses with the idea of justice. I find that so refreshing because I think justice is a lie that the powerful use to rationalize the punishment of the weak. Justice is never done. Vengeance is done. Perhaps people feel a bit better because the bad guy was punished. But the wrong has been done and it won’t be undone. People are not resurrected with more killing. Wasted lives are not fixed by wasting more lives. Rape is not erased with a cash settlement.
Calvary starts with the antagonist in a confessional saying, “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.” We learn that he was brutally and continuously raped for years by a priest who is now dead. And he has come up with an idea: he is going to kill Father James — not because he is guilty, but because he is innocent. If this were a normal film, that would be the end of it. James knows who it is. He could call the police and have the man locked up. But that would not be the Christian thing to do. James doesn’t want to die, but he’s willing to.
In the film, it seems that James doesn’t have a lot of choice in the matter. If he isn’t killed with a bullet to the head, he will be killed with a thousand cuts. His congregation does not understand Christianity the way he does. When his church is burned down, they don’t seem to care. At one point, he’s asked who burned down his church. He responds, “It’s not my church. It’s our church.” But they don’t see it that way. There’s too much history. It isn’t just the child rape. What St Ignatius said is true to James, “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude of the people also be; even as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” But that is hogwash to almost everyone but James.
Throughout Calvary, Father James is forced to suffer for the sins of others. There is really only one sin that he is responsible for: effectively abandoning his daughter for the priesthood after his wife died. And this is a sin that he actively seeks — and gets — forgiveness for. But how do you seek forgiveness for the sins of others? And how do you do that when others are not interested in even discussing the subject? The antagonist at least wants vengeance — or something like it. But most of the other people want nothing at all. They practice a thoughtless cynicism.
So without being too obvious, Calvary ends on a hopeful note. The wounded man at the beginning is now the wounder. And the daughter is set to break the cycle of wounded and wounding. She will do what is so rare in this world: forgive.
Calvary is one of the most spiritual films I’ve ever seen. And for a Christian, it would be especially meaningful. I wish that more Christians would watch it than truly vile films like God’s Not Dead and The Passion of the Christ. Both of those films made scads of money. But they don’t expect anything of their viewers. Calvary is a serious film that demands attention — especially from Christians. And it lost money.