Calvary: Imagining Postsecular Sacrifice (Film Review Essay)

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by Donovan Schaefer

Warning: All the spoilers.

To “sacrifice” means to make sacred. In the wake not only of the critique of religious authority by the secular tradition, but the contemporary critique of liberal reason that has complicated the secular tradition itself, what would a postsecular sacrifice look like?  Calvary, by Irish director John Michael McDonagh, puts forward a vision of Christianity that has passed through the critiques of religious faith offered by secularism and emerged to offer a radically transformed version of sacrifice that is both religious and secular.

A rural parish priest, Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson), is confronted by a man in his confessional booth who announces that he was raped as a young boy by a now-dead priest. The man tells him that he will kill Father James in one week—with full knowledge of his innocence—as a distorted act of revenge. Father James spends the week visiting his parishioners and spending time with his daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), who, still recovering from the death of her mother, has unsuccessfully attempted suicide. Over the course of the week, James interacts with a range of characters, including a canny altar boy, an imprisoned serial killer, a bankrupt bartender, an atheist doctor, an adulterous woman, her immigrant lover, and her husband (a butcher), a dying American writer, a Catholic French widow whose husband has just been killed in a car accident, a despairing banker, and James’s own bishop and subordinate priest. On the day before the threat is to be realized, James leaves the town en route for Dublin, but encounters the French widow at the airport. His encounter with her turns him around and he returns to the village. On the last day of the week, James meets the man who threatened to kill him—the butcher, as James had known all along—on the beach, where he is executed after a brief conversation. In the final shot of the film, Fiona confronts her father’s killer in the visitation room of his prison.

The genre of the film is best understood as that strange confluence of plot elements, settings, styles, and characterizations that is unique to the Christian tradition: the gospel. In a Christian gospel, the plot proceeds in fits and starts through a halting dynamic of mystery and discovery. Christian religious biography is both tragic, in being built around an inevitable unjust death, and comedic, in the way that it invokes an even more profound structure of redemption. As a gospel, the film suggests a trajectory of sanctification—a sacrifice that resonates clearly with the tones of an eminently Christian narrative.

At the same time, Calvary is not intended to suggest any sort of painless continuity with Christianity or nostalgia for an upright Christian empire. It even moves beyond the exhausted cliché of a true holy man emerging out of a corrupt and indifferent church to a far more troubling image of sacred biography. It would have been easy to make James into a man of virtue who channels some sort of authentic vision of Christianity by holding a church accountable to its own abandoned values. Instead, James is himself a broken, disturbing figure. When he meets his former student, an incarcerated serial killer, he doesn’t try to maintain his composure. He feels the force of the man’s violence and delusion and angrily wrestles with it, rather than claiming to understand him or neutralize it with theological platitudes. When he is feeling sorry for himself in the pub, he gets sloppily drunk, draws a gun, points it at two men, then unloads the chamber into the bottles on the wall, precipitating a fight with the bartender, which he loses. These are not marks of nobility, but of passion and imperfection. He resembles Yeshua, the earthbound, animal messiah described by Catholic philosopher of religion John D. Caputo in The Insistence of God: “The four ‘elements’ circulate through the body of the earthman,” Caputo writes, “in his fiery anger at hypocrisy, in the pneuma by which he is filled, in the earth and water of his spittle.” (Caputo: 2013, 253) His is an “animal kingdom” rather than a city of God. But Calvary shows us that such a body really is a disturbing and upsetting force rather than a romantic rebel. This priest is no saint, but a body wracked by his own history of pain and the pain of the world.

At the same time, the film clearly wants to establish that James is a deeply compassionate man laboring to bring healing to the bodies around him. From the opening shot, when the butcher is whispering the details of his sexual abuse to James in the confessional, we see the heavy reverberations of another body’s pain moving across his face. When he encounters the adulterous Veronica, his concern is only over whether or not she’s being abused in either of her relationships—unlike his priestly colleague who takes her confession and curls his lip in disgust at her infidelity. This same colleague is later driven out of the rectory by James, who furiously accuses him of having “no integrity” and of being an “accountant” rather than a priest. Embedded in these actions are a series of gospel motifs directly linking James to Jesus—binding Jesus’s ethereal presence with James’s own earthly bad behavior.

The key line of the film comes in James’s unpretentious—but heartfelt—conversation with Fiona before she leaves the village. “I think there’s too much talk about sin and not enough talk about virtues,” he muses with unusual thoughtfulness. “I think forgiveness has been highly underrated.” This short tract of dialog not only attaches James to the postsecular motif of the healer of bodies, it makes intelligible the closing shot of the film, where Fiona visits her father’s killer in prison. In this scene, Fiona is called on to do the hardest thing she can imagine: to forgive this broken man for taking away her only surviving parent, not as part of an abstract theological commitment, but by recognizing that his brokenness is a feature of an economy of pain that cannot but enfold her and her father. Her act of forgiveness, presaged by her conversation with her dad, is an embodied gesture that demands strength from the resources of Christianity, even as it lets go of theological authority.

This attention to religious bodies rather than religious doctrines is highlighted by the dialog between James and the atheist doctor, Frank (Aiden Gillen), who confronts him in the shadows of the pub. Frank, looming over the priest with a cold sneer, whispers a story about a 3-year-old boy who was admitted to surgery but, because of an anesthesiologist’s error, was left deaf, dumb, and blind after the operation. Frank dwells—almost gleefully—on the terror the boy must have felt on waking up trapped, painting a picture of a profound, irreconcilable injustice. The hackneyed genre is immediately recognizable: this is an atheist smugly confronting a believer with a proof for the non-existence of God.

But rather than returning to the stalemate of debates about philosophical theodicy—the attempt to keep the fortress of religious authority intact under the secularist’s assault—James’s response is decidedly more animal: “Why the fuck would you tell me that?” he growls, his eyes welling with tears. This calls attention to the crudeness of the snide secularist’s insistence on deploying human pain in an abstract philosophical chess game. Father James’s response to the crass atheist is not an attempt to defend the intelligibility of the world according to a divine plan, but an embodied, affective reaction to suffering. Precisely where the atheist icily calls the man of God to account, the postsecular priest responds with his body instead of a parcel of doctrines.

This promise of healing also makes sense of the key plot hinge of the film: Why does James go back to the village to confront the butcher after already setting out to join his daughter in Dublin? The decision stems from his encounter with the French widow, Teresa (Marie-Josée Croze), at the airport. In part, we sense James’s admiration for her faith as it carries her through the aftermath of her husband’s death. But James still moves to board the plane until he and Teresa are arrested by the sight of the baggage handlers leaning on Teresa’s husband’s coffin in idle conversation. James sees Teresa’s pain and realizes that where the mingling of the profound and the mundane produces pain, James’s own body—in that moment dressed in street clothes rather than his soutane—has the potential to heal by sanctifying things in the world. Rather than expecting God to enter the world and delimit the path of compassion (or lapsing into a metaphysics of the inalienably sacred and profane) James realizes that in order to begin the cycle of healing, he must put his body on the line. The postsecular orientation of the film both claims and suspends religion—as illustrated by James’s frequent moments of reflection staring at the simple crucifix on his wall, and his cruciform posture after he is gunned down by a tormented man—to reimagine sacrifice as an act of healing.

One could criticize a potentially anti-feminist dimension of the film—a sense in which James prioritizes an obligation to enter into a transcendent relationship (that seems to subsist primarily in the world of men) over his responsibility to his daughter. With the closing scene—in which Fiona tearfully confronts her father’s killer in prison, forced by her father into her own deeply painful spiritual drama of forgiveness—there almost seems to be a self-indulgent pedagogical axis to the film—as if James had sacrificed himself in order to teach his daughter to forgive, trapping her in a paternalistic monologue. But I think this reading—though unavoidable—is offset in light of how deeply flawed the protagonist is. James, the violent, stumbling, drunken, broken priest, is not the architect of a calm, expansive plan of redemption, but a solitary, trembling body trying to enact a rite of healing with no certainty of success. Just as the film is post-secular, the religious body at its center must be post-sanctity—an animal saint sacrificed in sorrow and uncertainty in the hope of earthly healing, rather than a far-seeing martyr who moves confidently toward the promise of the cold light of salvation.

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