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Calvary: bleak film, positive priest

July 30, 2014


I don’t write about films that much, but this was a good one. I know it was good because it had ideas in it that I’d thought about before but never really seen expressed in a movie.

Plot: a priest sits in the confession box and is told by an unnamed person that he’s going to die a week on Sunday. He seems to know who it is, but we don’t. He walks around the village for the rest of the week, death sentence hanging over him, and meets the biggest collection of motherfuckers ever put on film. One of them is the potential killer. His daughter arrives after a suicide attempt and they look at Irish scenery together. Locations are windswept. Father Ted sets are re-used. Finally, a week on Sunday arrives and the priest goes to the beach to meet his killer.

Subplot: the villagers all have their little stories, or failing that, an attitude. Littlefinger turns up as an atheist doctor who is close in spirit to the Joker. The token black guy is, refreshingly, a complete twat, but not in a one note way. A French [Italian?] woman loses her boyfriend and is probably the only other truly decent person in the film, even when in deep grief. Or possibly because she’s in deep grief.

There isn’t really much of a plot, actually.

If you took away the ‘who’s gonna kill him’ element, you’d still have a strong film. I don’t know if the director realised that. Maybe he was advised to include the mystery angle to keep people watching or to get someone to fund the thing.

Or maybe the sense of foreboding is what he really wanted. The idea that the church and its priests are all stuck in a village-shaped Hell [semi-deservedly due to all the kiddie fiddling and attempted cover-ups] and the end is near.

This isn’t really a film about religion though. Not to me. It’s a film about a decent man, summed up by one line: ‘I think people have dwelled too much on sin and not enough on virtues. Like forgiveness. Forgiveness is a big one.’

That’s not word for word, but it’s enough to capture the idea of what he’s saying.

Why is he so decent?

Not because he’s a priest. He wears the costume, but it comes across more as a vehicle for him to go around the village helping people. This is a man who wants to help people. The church just gives him the opportunity.

But that’s a two-sided thing.

Idea 1: torment the priest because he can’t bite back

The priest is both listened to and abused throughout this film and that’s exactly what happens in real life to Christians. They’re like punchbags made of jelly. You can keep riling them and riling them and they won’t do a thing about it because the whole point of their religion is to not be aggressive.

Obviously that can come across as smugness in some. Or pity. You can hear the words, ‘I feel sorry for you and will pray to God to accept you unto his arms,’ at any church if you stick around long enough.

But this priest doesn’t force religion down anyone’s throat, and that’s why it’s so frustrating that such a decent guy gets abused so often in this film. All the villagers take it in turns to wind him up and spit on him and tell him to fuck off, and they do it because they know he’ll take it.

[Yet most of them still go to church. Strange.]

The best example is the scene in the pub when the atheist doctor tells the priest a harrowing story for no reason whatsoever. The priest even says at the end of it, ‘why the fuck would you tell me that?’

Well, he tells him that because the priest costume offends him. It offends all of them. It’s practically the equivalent of wearing a Nazi uniform. They hate him and attack him because he won’t take it off.

Another pretty blatant example of abuse, for different reasons, is when the priest talks to the young girl on a deserted road. Her father pulls up in his car and shouts at the priest, basically calling him a paedophile. Because that’s what all priests have become now: walking sex crimes. The costume only makes it worse.

Imagine: if he’d been wearing normal clothes, would the father have reacted in the same way?

Would any of the villagers torment him if he walked around in jeans and t-shirt?

Probably not.

Which means: the costume of the priest is the exact opposite representation of what it should be.

Traditional Priest costume = safety, kindness, compassion

Modern Priest costume = sexual predator

Idea 2: Forgiveness

The ending of this film is very powerful. By ending, I mean the final scene. It shows exactly how hard it is to forgive someone who has truly wronged you.
But ultimately, it’s positive, and that’s something that modern fiction and films don’t do enough of. This film does. It takes a guy who’s decent, but not a saint, and through him makes you want to be a better person. Not a religious person, just a better person than any of those fucking villagers.

I want to say more, but I don’t want to ruin the ending for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet.

Idea 3: Sincerity over flash writing

I didn’t like ‘The Guard’ that much. That’s the previous film by the director of this one. I thought the dialogue was flash and empty, and the main character was someone I’d seen a thousand times before. E.g. slightly racist, drunk, but the only honourable guy in town.

Can’t think of any actual examples from other films, but I felt them, if that makes sense. I mean, I watched this guy and thought, that’s just like something else I’ve seen.

There’s some flash writing in ‘Calvary’ too, but the difference is that it’s sincere. Or it appears to be. It comes from the characters and what they represent e.g. the priest’s reaction to the doctor’s shitty story.

The only exception is the opening scene and the confession of the potential killer, of his childhood getting fucked by a [different] priest. This bit seems a little forced. ‘I was seven when I first tasted semen.’ Too movie-like. Or the way he explains his plan of killing a good priest instead of a bad one. I don’t know why it came across as fake…maybe because it was too well-said…like he’d come in with his lines all prepared. There was no awkwardness or reluctance from the guy confessing, which doesn’t make much sense to me. He’s talking to a priest, a guy he’s known probably most of his life, and he’s talking too confidently about something that really shouldn’t be that easy.

Maybe that’s too harsh. I don’t know. I’m not a Catholic, I’ve never been in the confessional box.

It just seemed a little off.

At least it wasn’t as bad as that line from ‘The Guard’, the bad guy lying on the bed, bleeding to death and saying, ‘Don’t tell me how to die. I know how to die.’

But even that’s not as bad as ‘7 Psychopaths’, the second film by this director’s brother. I can’t remember any of the lines, but I do remember it was a film about nothing.

Calvary is a film about something, I’m sure of it. And even if it’s not, even if the director accidentally included sincerity, I don’t care, it’s still great and you should watch it right now if you haven’t already.

Token Black Guy

There’s almost no racism against him in the village, so he becomes like a white ESL teacher in Japan, fucking everything he can get his hands on. It’s quite funny, and interesting, as you get the impression in the first scene that he had a bad time with the church earlier in his life, and now he’s just decided he doesn’t give a shit about anything.
He’s not alone either…no-one in the village really gives a fuck about anyone else but themselves.

The rich banker

Surprisingly, not the worst guy in the village. He’s pretty rude, but there’s one scene where he’s brutally honest about himself and sincere, and he becomes the only villager who drops the aggression and lets the priest do his job i.e. help people.

The serial killer

Also treats the priest fairly well, mostly because he’s in such a miserable situation that he needs the guy to offer him some form of escape.
This means: people are only nice to priests when they’re about to die or in prison for a long time.

The Atheist Doctor

How is this guy still in a job? He walks around the hospital openly talking about patients not lasting much longer. Probably one of the only characters who skates pretty close to ‘not a real person’, but his actions in the pub are real enough, and it makes you want to punch him in the face. There are people very similar to him in the world [though less overt about it]. Avoid them, they are poisonous.
[Note: he’s not a twat because of his atheism, though it probably doesn’t help]
Also, there’s a weak line when he’s doing coke in the toilets with the village slapper. ‘Coke’s a little bit Moorish.’ That line’s been done many times now, it can’t be used again. I’m surprised a director who’s a known stylist would let it stay in.

The daughter

First hand witness to the amount of abuse her dad gets from everyone. At one point she actually says, ‘do you have to put up with this shit every day?’
I’m also glad she doesn’t try to kill herself again.


I’d like to see more of this. Just as in those old episodes of Star Trek where Picard would try to help the Romulans even after they’d threatened to pull apart his ship and take him back to a dungeon on Romulus.
When’s the next Star Trek series coming?
Soon, I hope.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 19, 2014 9:55 am

    I enjoyed your write up of Calvary, you should check out mine at Emma.

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