“You know how you can tell when you are really getting old”
“No one ever uses the word death around you anymore”
That peace of dialogue gave me Goosebumps. What a day!! I first saw Oculus in the morning which surprised me a lot, and I just came back from a special screening in Amsterdam for the movie Calvary and I think we can add another masterpiece to the 2014 list!
WARNING HEAVY SPOILERS AHEAD!
Calvary blew me away at the screening yesterday. It surprisingly reminded me a lot of the 1961 movie ‘Viridiana’ from legendary Spanish director Luis Buñuel. After the screening I talked with people about the plot and meaning, I want to thank those people for giving me a proper understanding of the movie. I decided to write it all down and since my Enemy analysis was a great success, I decided to make a second but smaller analysis of Calvary. I hope you enjoy/understand it and remember it is my interpretation of this movie.
Here we go again…
In confessional, a parishioner tells Father James he will kill him in a week because Father James is a good man and an excellent priest. His murder would be a shock to the church that countenanced the man’s boyhood sexual abuse. Despite knowing who his threat is, Father James spends the time ministering to his parishioners — including his killer’s domestic issues, preserving the sacred privacy of the confessional. He gets a gun but at the last minute throws it away in the sea.
He plans to escape to Dublin but changes his mind as he boards the plane. What prompts that change is seeing two airport employees chatting as they lean over a coffin. Inside is a good man who was killed in a car crash with drunken teenagers. Father James is strengthened by seeing the casual way in which that victimized innocence is treated. There is no respect there, no overall sense of holiness or decency, just two retards leaning. That revives Father James’s conscience and he returns to face his fate.
The dead man’s wife is the only character here who has no crisis of faith. She knows her husband was a good man. Though in pain, she accepts his…what we would think is absurd…random death. She appreciates the kindness the strangers have shown her and tells she is flying him home.
Father James’s daughter, who looks like her — thin, delicate, wan — grows through the film from her shaky recovery from a suicide attempt to her own serenity, when she goes to the prison to talk to her father’s killer. As Father James told his daughter, the most undervalued virtue is forgiveness. After a broken romance caused her to despair, now her father’s sacrifice brings her a surprising peace. She forgives the troubled killer and then can forgive herself the failures she made.
So when Father James goes back to confront his killer he is performing his function. He learned that from the good man of abused acceptance in the coffin. In performing the role that he, like Jesus, compensates the others person’s sin. He saves his killer’s soul by exorcising the abused boy’s rage and helplessness. For the killer to forgive his abuser, the church and ultimately himself for the murder, though, the butcher needs the model of the priest’s daughter’s forgiveness. That distinguishes this killer from the one that Father James visits in prison, a cannibal who feels nothing.
In contrast, with the exception of the new widow, every character suffers from the wealthy landowner’s confessed “disassociation”. The daughter is adrift by the loss of her father to the priesthood after she lost her mother to a lingering death. The male prostitute constantly acts like a gangster to avoid making any human connection, the novelist who awaits death, the atheist doctor, the homosexual cop etc.
The landowner at one point takes down a painting from his wall and urinates on it. Abandoned by his family and even his servant, he shows signs that his wealth is meaningless. His 100.000 Euro check to the church means nothing to him.
Now I did some research on the painting. The painting is the Holbein’s The Ambassadors, which shows two wealthy overdressed men, with in the foreground an anamorphic image of a skull that can only be seen from the side. The view from the side undermines the impressive secularity seen from the front. The cross of Christ hangs in a distant corner. “Calvary” of course means “the place of the skull” the place where we confront our mortality, as Christ assumed his.
This painting is an emblem of the film, but with a twist. From the frontal view our impression is of a troubled, pained, helpless secular existence, where even a good priest is immediately suspect for chatting with a little girl, where the Catholic Church stands condemned for its greed and its abandonment of its children and for its hypocrisy. But viewed from a different angle, from Father James’s perspective, there survives the reminder of grace, of forgiveness and connection.
One more thing about the painting. It famously hangs in London’s National Gallery. In no way could this character own it. So having spent so much meaningless money to buy this, he thinks he is so dramatically despoiling by demonstrating his power, while it’s a fake. He knew when he bought it that every estimation of the painting is wrong. The fake is as dissociated from its original promise as the character is.
There are three priests here. The young colleague and the older bishop look thin and with no spark to suggest a calling. Father James is the opposite and erupts into drunken violence on the eve of his mortal test. Father James is a man of flesh and passion. Having had a daughter before he became a priest, he knows the flesh. He knows love, so he doesn’t need a picture to remember his wife. He has been an alcoholic and he can cry for his murdered dog the way he couldn’t cry for his church’s young victims, because he also knew dissociation.
Now for the people who are asking who killed the dog. It think it was his daughter Fiona, who left the village the morning after the dog was discovered. Rather than promoting the idea that there is another person aggrieved at Father James for what the church as a whole has done, I would propose that Father James is being punished for making his aspiration to be a good priest rather than a good man. While she was visiting Father James, having come over from London following a suicide attempt, she discusses with him how he had left for the priesthood after his wife and her mother died. Although Father James was leaving on a pursuit for the greater good, Fiona felt that she had been abandoned by both of her parents one after the other. Taking away the dog, one of James’s few close companions in his work, would be fitting revenge, and “killing the dog” to send a message would appeal to a well-read sense of irony.
Calvary is a rare piece of work in cinema, although I’m an atheist it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy stories about faith, I do and especially if one is as good written as Calvary. It’s a film which is meant to be dissected and redissected…and redissected once again. Understandably, this will not be everyone’s cup of tea, maybe coming off as far too brutal in its satire. That said, Calvary is a dark comedy taken to its satirical extreme. It’s like a modern day Luis Buñuel movie. John Michael McDonagh made a classic and sure will be talked about for a long time. The performance of Brendon Gleeson was one of the best I’ve seen from him and one of the best performances this year. The cinematography of Larry Smith was once again admirable who mixes up painterly compositions and skewed angles (which I absolutely loved) with flair. The soundtrack is also fantastically composed and bought it immediately on iTunes!
I had much fun doing the Enemy analysis, and was almost sure it would be my favorite movie of the year. Now that I saw Oculus and Calvary, I see that many movies coming up now are absolutely excellent, so I will have a hard time to decide which one of those movies will hit my #1 spot in the list.
Calvary gets a strong 9/10.