Calvary and the Lost Art of Forgiveness

CalvaryThe 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.

16 thoughts on “Calvary and the Lost Art of Forgiveness

  1. I think someone mentioned that Brendan Gleeson is one of the best actors alive. His commitment to every role is amazing (so long as the role’s Irish, he appears to be a total nationalist.) I will definitely check this out.

    BTW, I did see “Shock Corridor.” It’s very well-done and so I have little to add. The movie’s plot, how schizophrenia arises from personal trauma, so the reporter can get mystery clues by getting inmates to open up about their pasts, is ridiculous. Mental illness doesn’t work that way, the movie’s a bit silly there.

    However the patients opening up about their pasts is amazing stuff. The African-American who goes batshit on racist rants; holy smokes, you couldn’t put that in a movie now. Great writing and astonishingly great acting. The reporter tries to wring info out of a patient who thinks he’s Stonewall Jackson; the reporter sucks up to him by pretending he’s Nathan Bedford Forrest, founder of the KKK and huge monster who killed escaped slaves with true brutality like the traitor terrorist Forrest was.

    Nice rec, very interesting movie.

    • Well, Shock Corridor is over 50 years old, so you’ve got to give it a bit of a pass. Also, it’s necessary for the drama. But I know what you mean. I’ve had a fair amount of experience with two schizophrenics. It’s really sad. It’s like telling someone on LSD, “Just don’t feel that way. Don’t see that thing. Don’t think that thought.”

      As for Gleeson: he is a treasure. He is also the only Irish actor working in the 1990s who wasn’t in Ballykissangel. Just kidding. Calvary is a great film. I’ll bet if I got Christians to watch it, they would all react, “Why doesn’t he just turn the guy in?” Christianity: dead and buried in modern America!

      • There’s that style of making important points in 50-year-old drama which is lost now. It’s heavy-handed to be sure. But when that wonderful actor does his racist rant in “Shock Corridor,” or the world blows up in “Fail-Safe”/”Strangelove,” or Henry Fonda confronts jurors in “12 Angry Men,” you are getting something that’s missing from modern films/TV. Of course the subtle social commentary of Hardy, James, Austen, Eliot, Conrad, etc., is preferable. But better slam-you-over-the-head social commentary than none at all.

        • I’m not sure I would agree about the subtlety of Hardy, Austen, Eliot, or Conrad. I’ll yield on James. I just think because we are outside the society of that time, we don’t tend to see it. I know especially with Austen, people miss a lot of her social critique. Sense and Sensibility is really a very harsh novel — especially with regard to the pretensions of the Romantics. But also, that opening where the half brother slowly lowers what he thinks he owes to his step-mother from 3,000 pounds to the occasional present of some hunting game. That’s as true today as ever.

          But you are right that Samuel Fuller is a “message” filmmaker. He doesn’t try for subtlety. I’m watching Shock Corridor right now, thinking it is about time that I write about it. Although I don’t know quite what I will have to say.

          • That’s a great point about those writers. They were being as direct as they could get away with. Hardy was particularly despised for being so bold, quit fiction and moved to poetry.

            Looking forward to the “Corridor” post! The Forrest references really stuck out for me. It’s one thing that we’re not allowed to say racism is real and still a problem. It’s another that we pretend historical racism basically was confined to mean lunch-counter owners and boorish Southern sheriffs. We can’t mention major military figures and civic leaders like Forrest, except in deference to Great Confederate Heroes. The man was pure Mengele. If a movie mentioned him now, or the KKK, it would be seen as edgy/provocative.

            I wonder if Dave Chappelle’s famous “Black White Supremacist” bit ( owes any inspiration to Hari Rhodes’s speech in “Corridor.” (Incidentally, Rhodes sounds like a pretty interesting person:

  2. @JMF – Fuller got into some trouble. The NAACP really didn’t like his film White Dog. Even though Corridor is a famous film, I kind of think Chappelle is not referencing it. It seems like the kind of thing that ends conversations. Rhodes is great. But what is it with these iconic black actors from the 60s — like Duane Jones — dying so young. Oh well, at least Melvin Van Peebles is still alive.

    Watching the film this time, it struck me like a Greek tragedy. It also has elements of the Odyssey.

  3. Finally saw “Calvary.” I admit to being a bit confused, so it was useful to go back and re-read this review. I couldn’t quite piece together what all the damaged people were meant to represent; Ireland’s economic struggles, the guilt of the Church? Seeing them all as people in various stages of needing to give and receive forgiveness helped me grasp the film a little better.

    I was disappointed by the ending — I never want Gleeson to get killed — but I suppose it makes sense, given the title. One lingering plot item; the killer says he didn’t murder the priest’s dog. So who did? I’m sure that’s part of the point, too, that it doesn’t matter. It has to be either the killer’s wife (who keeps flirting with the priest and getting no reaction) or the priest’s daughter (right after the dog dies, she mentions the dog, and perhaps that’s something she’s going to say to the killer, in the jail-phone booth which is very like a confessional.)

    Definitely a thought-provoking movie. I can’t say it cheered me up, but I’m not sorry I saw it. (And what was the M. Emmett Walsh character, the old American writer? Someone who needed forgiveness for America, the country he left, like so many Irish left for America?) A lot going on. And Gleeson’s always amazing.

    • I had to go back and read what I had written. It’s one of the most lyrical things I’ve ever written. I will have to watch the film again. It was extremely powerful.

      I don’t think that the film is meant to be too didactic. It isn’t that the American represents anything especially. But as I recall, he isn’t a religious man, yet James has a spiritual relationship with him. To a large extent, the church is not a spiritual home for people. I think the point about the dog is just that the world is evil. There are people who kill dogs. But it is also a plot device — to push the killer over the edge when James admits that he grieved more for his dog than for the child victims of the priests.

      It is an outstanding film. Maybe I’ll watch it again tonight.

      • I took the characters as symbolizing things because of the very stylized manner in which they interacted with the priest. And aside from his daughter and the writer (perhaps also the gay police chief), they all seem to hate him, even though he is apparently a kind man. Perhaps the idea is that these characters are swimming in self-loathing and projecting that onto the priest, who (again, the title) is something of a sacrificial figure. It’s not even that most of them are bad people (even the serial killer is more insane than malicious.) The doctor who gives that harrowing speech about a disabled child seems just beaten down by what he’s seen, not what he’s done.

        If forgiveness of self and others is really the theme, it’s one Alexander Payne examines in some of his movies as well — although they’re less tormented than this is. Not that I’m doing to yell at any Irish writer for feeling pretty tormented right now!

        • It definitely works as a Gospel analogy. Apart from getting killed, Jesus spends most of the Gospels being pissed off at everyone. That’s one of the best parts of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew. But I’m really going to have to watch it again. But I’m too tired right now.

          I started watching Luck. I’m not too happy with the sound quality. It’s hard to follow things without the subtitles on. But it’s really good.

          • Glad you’re enjoying the TV show. It’s not exactly coherent even with good sound. But it loves the sport and the characters surrounding it.

            I keep meaning to check out Pasolini’s Gospel . . .

            • Yeah, I think that David Mich is going too much for understatement and subtext. But the directing is really good. I’m not sure I want to get into it, given that it was canceled. Deadwood was heartbreaking.

              Well, Gospel is freely available on YouTube. Make sure you watch the 2+ hour version.

              • It’s not as frustrating as “Deadwood”‘s abrupt end. The only story left hanging is the Dustin Hoffman semi-mobster bit, which wasn’t all that interesting (although I did like seeing Hoffman be more reserved than we’re used to.) The various bettors, trainers, and jockeys mostly have good season-ending wraps to their plotlines. (The group I liked best, the one with Kevin Dunn from “Veep,” get their moment of joy, so you can skip the end knowing that story pauses on a nice note.)

                The current prestige cable drama trend doesn’t seem to have room for Milch. In one way you think he’d be perfectly suited; he’s got no shortage of ideas and collaborates so well with actors/writers that the networks currently looking to replace just-ended Big Name series seem dumb not to be breaking down his door. But then again, they’re looking for the next “everyone’s talking about it” series and that’s never going to be Milch. He’s a little bit like the Altman of TV (right down to the sometimes inaudible dialogue!)

                Side note; out of sheer perversity, I wonder what’s going to happen to HBO with “Game Of Thrones.” It’s their biggest show going. But Martin is never going to finish his books fast enough. Whatever his moral shortcomings as a writer (he’s too in love with cruelty for my taste), he does seem to have integrity; he’s not churning out lazy efforts for money. He’s going to write at his own speed. So what can HBO do? Maybe Martin and HBO can part amicably, him writing his Bible-length books, and HBO hiring someone to finish up “Vince Gilligan’s George Martin’s Game Of Thrones.”

                • Yeah, I loved seeing Kevin Dunn. I remember him fondly from Mississippi Burning and Dave. And I love his character in Veep. He’s just one of those incredibly likable character actors. That’s a very good way to sum up Milch: the Altman of television. I think there has been a bit of a downward trend with cable dramas where the stations have decided they can get away with less quality. At my sister’s urging, I checked out Girls. And it’s fine. Lena Dunham is very creative. But ultimately, it’s just a sexed up Friends. The shelf life for any corporate entity believing that quality will sell is very short.

                  My understanding with GOT is that the show has already split off from the books and that Martin is fine with that. Apparently they will end more or less the same. I’m always a season behind, but from what I’m hearing, I’m not sure I’m going to watch the fifth season. Ramsay was hard enough to take in the fourth season. I think there is a real problem with focusing too much on psychopathic characters — it seems to endorse the behavior. And Martin, of course, is a postmodern writer who takes pleasure in providing pointless deaths for much loved characters and unfulfilling deaths for much hated characters.

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