Note from the Editor: This film is rated “R” and therefore is not advised for all audiences. You are encouraged to use your own discernment in your viewing choices.
“Calvary” is not for the faint of heart. This movie is audaciously candid and ruthlessly palpable. Replete with memorable dialogues and unforgettable characters, its core message is both timeless and timely. There are so many juxtapositions between vices and virtues that every interaction between the good priest and his various dialogue partners deserves its own separate blog post. It comes as no surprise, then, that some have hailed it to be one of Ireland’s greatest films. Yet, in the end, this movie etches an indelible impression on many levels, drawing one’s thoughts back to the plot, its purpose, characters, and its theological relevance for today.
The premise of the movie is that a parishioner threatens to kill Father James Lavelle. This occurs during a confessional, and of course, without knowing when this may take place, the remainder of the movie is devoted to characters developing and the audience guessing who this sinister menace is.
There are many different elements one could discuss, but I’d like to focus on the good priest’s attire. Throughout the entire movie, save a scene or two, he is wearing a black soutane. Its symbolism drew the attention of various interlocutors, yet it seemed to hold great symbolic weight. As Brendan Gleeson (Father James Lavelle) said in an interview shortly after the airing of the film:
[In] “Calvary”…I…had to absorb the pain and disillusionment of everybody else, and their cynicism and their bitterness, and it was relentless. I remember putting on the vestments for Mass, and feeling, “Okay, this is like a suit of armor.” John said it was like a samurai preparing for battle, and I felt, “Okay, I’m the protector of whatever I believe to be good, essentially.” There was an essential quality to it, a kind of metaphysical examination, or an exploration of that. And it did feel as if I was under assault for the entirety of the shoot. I was shattered at the end of it.
In some ways “Calvary” functions like a modern day parable: teasing us into thinking long and hard about its message, meaning, and implications for our world in the 21st century. I propose that the parable (movie) answers the question, “What does it look like to live as a royal priest prepared for battle in a Post-Christendom context?” Though I’m not suggesting this was director John Michael McDonagh’s intent, I think a parabolic and prophetic inference may be drawn from this film through theological reflection.
Without divulging too much information and spoiling it for those of you who haven’t seen it (that’s, in part, how parables function!), we will briefly plunge into Ephesians 6:10-18 and its theological relevance to “Calvary” and our contemporary world.
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these,take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Suiting Up for Battle
What does putting on the full armor of God (Ephesians 6, 1 Thessalonians 5) look like in a post-Christendom context? What’s our black soutane? What does putting on the new self in Christ look like (see Colossians 3)?
The good priest stood firm with boldness, proclaiming truth to the cynical and even sinister parishioners. In most situations, truth was quintessentially involved (nihilism is a key theme), yet it is more keenly noticeable with his conversations with the suicidal daughter, the manic psychopath, and the author nearing death. Telling the truth in a 21st century post-Christendom context will be difficult and will be met by challenges; nevertheless, the Truth will set people free.
On multiple occasions Lavelle is identified as “good.” His righteousness is actually the reason his nemesis wants to kill him. Remember, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6) and “blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10).
Gospel of Peace
After the Beatitudes, Jesus speaks of the disciples’ roles in terms of mission (Matthew 5:13-16), involving both being (salt and light) and doing (good works). Lavelle embodied this in both his character and his acts. Scene after scene, it was as if the good news was going toe to toe with the bad news. The good priest might demonstrate how evangelism and discipleship are to be done in a post-Christendom context: in homes, bars, hospitals, and confessionals.
There is a whole dialogue between two widows (one recent and the other a few years) on the issue of faith, especially in regard to crisis. Lavelle captures what faith has become for many today: “For most people it’s the fear of death, nothing more than that. And if that’s all it is, then it’s very easy to lose.”
Salvation and the Holy Spirit
The helmet of salvation is a defensive armor, protecting the head from onslaughts. The sword of the Spirit (the Word of God) is an offensive weapon. Part of our salvation involves being freed from sin, and the topics of sin and repentance come up quite a few times in this movie.
Not just a few times, Lavelle asks if his parishioners are seeking pardon. If they weren’t, he usually didn’t stick around too long, being annoyed with their unwillingness to repent. I’m reminded of John 20:21-23: “So Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.’ And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.'”
Lavelle had to soak himself in prayer in order to confront what he had to face daily. What does prayer look like in a post-Christendom context? How do we pray for our enemies? How do we prepare ourselves for battle?
As we reflect, meditate, and prepare ourselves during this time of Lent, maybe the example of Lavelle is worth imitating. Now, he wasn’t a perfect exemplar, nor are any of us, save Jesus of Nazareth. Yet he picked up his cross and followed Jesus en route to “Calvary.” The cross prepares us ultimately for the glorious resurrection, but let us not forget what that path entails. As Bill Mallonee put in “Welcome to Struggleville”:
i’ve been trying to negotiate peace
with my own existence
she got a stockpile full of weaponry
she breaking every cease-fire agreement
oh the whole thing is full of decay
as sure as i’m made of dust
and into rust i know
the beast is falling
they are building a new gallows
for when You show up on the street
polishing the electric chair
they’re gonna give You a front row seat
heard a sneer outside the garden
salutation so well heeled
“final stop no points beyond struggleville
welcome all you suckers to struggleville”