Calvary

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Calvary (2014)
John Michael McDonagh

It might’ve been funny (it has all the characteristics of a small-town absurdist farce), but Calvary treats its crises and revelations with such a measured severity that it never loses itself to grotesquerie. A priest walks around Easkey which for the way it’s shot might as well be the end of the world, either despised as one of history’s monsters, or pitied as a ghost of loathsome old Ireland (“I’m just a washerwoman, remember?”). He knows he has to die, that he’s a final line to God that no one wants to use, and he’s got a week to get his things in order- an arbitrary time-frame that given the circumstances will be a week-long wait for the inevitable. There’s never a suggestion that the priest is doubting his faith or waiting for a miracle to reveal itself, because Calvary wouldn’t dare provide an argument to move beyond its own impossibility.

Whether or not we recognise the voice of Father James’ killer in the first scene alters the tone of the film (my partner watched a doom-laden mystery while I watched seven episodes of a priest trying to be impartial to his killer), but they ultimately amount to the same thing. He’s impartial because of a detached piety he wears with pride (which it transpires is his undoing), and because he knows better than anyone that if this individual hadn’t put his hand up to do it, somebody else would’ve. Because they’re wrong when they say he’s a ghost that doesn’t recognise that it’s his time to go. Of course he knows what he is. Because everyone wants an answer, and everyone wants someone or something to blame for their shitty lives, and for some it’s not even a case of the parish offering naive promises and blase platitudes, it’s the Catholic church that stands at that point of historical and immediate trauma. A nightmare that time reveals as a systemic evil- something so boundless in its violence that it robs you of your trauma and tells you to take a number and get in line.

The voices of non-believers are many in the film- as this picture of transgenerational abuse and fearful imperialism hardens in mass consciousness they ask what a pious person looks like and how they would respond to this. In Calvary the answer is that he looks like a priest (the sea to his back, torches and pitchforks enclosing), and that he has nothing to say: “This isn’t the mission” “You’ve been reading your history”; “Did you cry when you read about what your priests had done?” “No, I felt detached from it”; and critically “Memories fade” “No, they don’t.” Or, he has a lot to say, but none of it is particularly helpful. At one stage Father James calls the writer character out for saying “one of those things that sounds clever, but doesn’t really mean anything at all,” which is a reflexive moment for the writer-director that doubles as the character’s own confession.

McDonagh’s (stage-)playful writing ensures that Calvary‘s quasi-dialectic feels as though it’s a sparring match when it’s actually a war of attrition- silence would be the bitterest conclusion of all, so Father James busies himself making perfectly phrased sounds to no end, signifying nothing but the negation of silence itself. Because Calvary‘s impossibility is in its immovable negations. The townspeople who loudly reject the church are still bound in their every move to doctrine- their attempts at freedom are expressed through the negation of positive Christian traits rather than something outside of Christianity altogether. Speaking uniformly with writerly elocution, they present arguments for the church’s irrelevance or social harm, and never receive a counterargument. They want to negate Father James, to crush the faith they know is there but which they cannot see, and we want him to negate their cynicism (achieving synthesis), but Calvary is about limits and negatives, not positive answers.

So the ghost-priest, present as his own negation, wanders at the end of the world in the pitch blackness and knows whether or not there’s something there, there’s something there. It’s tempting to think that McDonagh is asking for a thesis for the future, but it seems more likely that for him silence’s negation will suffice.

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