Everyone has a breaking point, and James Lavelle, the Irish Catholic priest at the center of John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, reaches his one afternoon as he’s strolling down a secluded path toward the seaside in his little village of Rush, County Sligo. Encountering a young girl on his walk, the warm-hearted priest (Brendan Gleeson) strikes up a conversation with her, and her saucy attitude seems to lighten the heavy emotional burden he’s been carrying for days. But then their path is cut off by a car screeching to a halt. The girl’s father leaps out of the driver’s seat, demanding to know what the priest was saying to her. “I wasn’t sayin’ anythin’ to her!” Lavelle protests helplessly, but the father doesn’t believe him. He orders his daughter into the car and roars off, his eyes burning into the priest with the certainty that he’s caught a pedophile red-handed.
Of course, it’s open season on Catholic priests these days, now that the church’s long history of tolerating, and in many cases concealing, child sexual abuse has become a worldwide scandal. Calvary opens with a startling scene in which Lavelle, hearing confessions one Sunday morning, slides open the panel to the adjoining box and a man’s voice declares, “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.” The man reveals that he was raped by his parish priest every other day for five years, and because the culprit has died, the man promises to murder Lavelle in a week’s time as a perverse vengeance against God and the church. This premise of an innocent man taking other people’s sins upon himself turns Calvary into a transparent passion play even as it places the movie squarely in the 21st century; the cross shouldered by Lavelle as he counts down the days to his execution consists, in no small part, of all the ecclesiastical crimes now tumbling out of the closet.
Writer-director John Michael McDonagh—not to be confused with his younger brother, Martin, the acclaimed playwright (The Pillowman) and filmmaker (In Bruges)—approaches this story with the fury of a man who believes in the gospels but knows that its earthly trustees are hopelessly compromised. Lavelle is a profoundly good man who’s come to the priesthood for all the right reasons, to serve God and help his fellow man, after his daughter is grown and his wife has died. McDonagh surrounds him with a gallery of sinners, some of them gleeful and some of them anguished, and even as Lavelle worries about his own dire situation, he tries to help these damaged and often despairing souls, only to be brushed off and ridiculed as the hypocritical agent of a church with its own long history of crimes. When he gently takes the local pub owner to task for some minor infraction, the man asks if he’s been busy “screwing the Jews out of their money” and “collaborating with the Nazis.”
People in polite society seldom utter the word sin anymore, and with good reason: according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, among the mortal sins that can lead to eternal damnation unless repented are such debatable offenses as atheism, agnosticism, divorce, drug use, euthanasia, fornication, masturbation, contraception, and skipping mass on a holy day of obligation. Despite a wicked sense of humor, McDonagh is seriously concerned with the matter of sin, but he also understands, in keeping with what the church teaches, that sin wounds no one more than the sinner himself. And he’s less concerned with the dozens of specific offenses listed in the catechism than with the seven deadly sins—lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride—that divide people from God, corrupt the human spirit, and devour one from the inside.
Greed turns out to be the most provocative of them in the context of the story, principally because the church itself is so afflicted by it. “It’ll be a black day the Catholic church is no longer interested in money,” cracks Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), a filthy rich landowner who shapes up as Lavelle’s most formidable antagonist. Fitzgerald’s wife has left him, taking their children, and the debauched millionaire consoles himself by pricing everyone and everything; when Lavelle pays him a visit in his palatial home, Fitzgerald removes a framed canvas by Hans Holbein from the wall, lays it down on the carpet, unzips his fly, and urinates on it. After Lavelle’s church mysteriously burns to the ground, Fitzgerald shows up at the rectory offering a donation of 20,000 Euros to rebuild it, to the fawning gratitude of Lavelle’s colleague, Father Leary (David Wilmot). Disgusted with both of them, Lavelle calls the millionaire on his boast that money is no object, contemptuously bidding him up to 100,000 Euros.
All of McDonagh’s characters suffer from one or more of the deadly sins, and the most common combination is lust and wrath. After the sultry Veronica (Orla O’Rourke) shows up at church with a black eye, Lavelle confronts both her jolly husband, Jack (Chris O’Dowd), and her illicit lover, Simon (Isaach De Bankolé), only to be laughed off by the former and menaced by the latter. McDonagh’s streak of black humor shows up most prominently when Lavelle counsels the nerdy Milo (Killian Scott), who’s so desperate to get laid that he’s decided to become a soldier. “I’ve always felt there’s something inherently psychopathic about joining the army in peacetime,” Lavelle tells him. “As far as I’m concerned, people join the army to find out what it’s like to kill someone.” He urges Milo to move to Dublin or London or even New York, where he’ll have a greater chance of hooking up; from his perspective, premarital sex is a far lesser sin than taking another person’s life.
Pride is often considered the deadliest sin of all, the one that got Lucifer cast out of heaven, and almost every character in Calvary falls prey to it, elevating himself above the Almighty. “You see the light go out in their eyes, and you become God,” declares Freddie (Domhnall Gleeson, the star’s son), a former student of Lavelle’s and now a serial killer serving out a life sentence. An aging writer (M. Emmet Walsh), struggling to finish his last novel as he grows ever more feeble, asks Lavelle to find him a pistol so he can kill himself before he becomes infirm. Even Lavelle’s daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), arrives for a visit with her wrists bandaged from a suicide attempt. “You made the classic error,” cracks Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen), a doctor at the local hospital, when they meet in a pub. “You’re supposed to cut down.” Acerbic in the extreme, Harte is responsible for euthanizing a brain-dead man after Lavelle administers the last rites, and at the end of the movie McDonagh shows the doctor putting out his cigarette in an extracted human heart.
So what about Father Lavelle, the movie’s undisputed Christ figure? “There’s no point in killin’ a bad priest,” his stalker tells him at the beginning of the movie. “I’m gonna kill you ’cause you’re innocent.” Yet Lavelle is no saint. He may live in a tiny, whitewashed room with nothing on the walls except a crucifix, but he hasn’t taken any vow of poverty: unapologetically, he zooms around Rush in a flashy red convertible, the one toy he’s coveted all his life. The sin of gluttony encompasses an overindulgence in anything, including liquor, and as everyone knows, Lavelle used to be a boozer. (“I heard you liked to drink,” Fitzgerald remarks after the priest turns down a glass of whiskey, to which Lavelle replies, “I liked it too much.”) The incident with the little girl and her irate father pushes Lavelle over the edge, and he goes on a brooding bender; at closing time, Simon and the pub owner get a glimpse of the priest’s wrath when he pulls out the pistol he’s been carrying to protect himself and empties it along the length of the bar, shattering the bottles and mirrored walls.
This outburst is shocking not only for its violence but also because, after trying so hard to lift up his neighbors, Lavelle has finally succumbed to the despair that infects nearly everyone else in the movie, his daughter included. Despair is sometimes referred to as a sin, though more precisely it’s the soil from which many sins grow. “I’m in a bad way,” the millionaire Fitzgerald confesses to Lavelle when they run into each other on the beach on Sunday morning. Fitzgerald feels detached from everyone and everything; when he asks Lavelle where this feeling comes from, the priest is forced to admit that he doesn’t know. Lavelle assures him that they’ll talk later, then heads off for his rendezvous with the man who’s threatened to kill him. Calvary ends the same way as the gospels, with a redemption, but for most of the movie Lavelle faces a long, uphill march, struggling under the weight of a religion that promises people hope but, for many, has become a symbol of hopelessness.