Bearing Burdens

By Tim Winterstein

There are not many movies that depict the Christian life with any sort of reality or substance. Far more often, movies resort to caricatures or stereotypes. And this is true, unfortunately, whether the filmmaker is a Christian or not. The only thing that changes is whether the caricature is a positive or negative one. There is a second category of film that is situated within a Christian universe, that takes for granted the general outlines of the Christian story. These films don’t usually explicitly refer to Christianity or even contain characters who are Christians. But their moral framework fits a Christian one.

And then there are (the very few) films like Calvary (2014, available for rent on streaming platforms). I’m not sure I can come up with any close second-place contenders for the sort of film that Calvary is, even with a few minutes of reflection. (And don’t come at me with any ridiculousness about First Reformed. It’s not even close.) I can’t think of any other movies that lay bare a truly Christian struggle without offering easy answers on behalf of or against that Christianity. The temptation to answer the various challenges to faith or the Church (not always the same thing) is seemingly too difficult to resist. 

But Father James—and, seriously, Brendan Gleeson is perfect here—is more or less content to serve the small community parish outside of Sligo, which is also where the movie was filmed. In the first scene, we see him sitting in the confessional. The first words out of the mouth of the unknown penitent are shocking, horrible, and heart-breaking. The penitent says that he was a victim of sexual abuse by a priest, and now he wants vengeance. He says no to everything Father James suggests. There is nothing to be done, he says, except to kill another priest. And Father James is the target, not because he is guilty, but because he is innocent.

Hence Calvary.

There is nothing neat or nice about the parish James serves. The people in the town who are not members of the church have various reasons for their animosity or apathy toward the church and the priest (although, because of the size of the town, I’d guess that they all have a greater or lesser connection to the parish). And even the actual communicants do not hide their sins. In their interactions with the priest, he is not afraid to give them both spiritual and secular wisdom—not that they listen, generally. And for most of their problems, he doesn’t have good solutions. The situations in which they find themselves, whether of their own or others’ making, do not have good answers. Choices have consequences, and there’s no way to go back to some point previous to the choices they have made.

For the first half of the film, which is often funny, James doesn’t seem to be affected by the less-than-holy people in the town. He seems to have accepted that he will do whatever he can, carry out his vocation as priest, and let the chips fall. He is not responsible for the action or inaction of others. But we realize just how much the burden weighs that he carries when he is walking down the street chatting with a young girl, whose father seems to presume that he is guilty of ulterior motives toward her. He is actually prevented from being a priest because of the evil that other priests have committed. And this final bit of weight is too much for his resolve against alcohol, and he collapses.

I think, in fact, that this is the primary theme of Calvary: bearing the burdens that do not belong to you. If there are any good priests or pastors left (I assume there are!), James is one of them. He actually believes what he says. He has integrity—which, he thinks, Father Leary does not have—and he cares what happens to people. But, finally, that is not enough. It’s not enough to be “one of the good guys.” By virtue of his cassock and stole and the white collar around his neck, he is forced to be a representative not only of a church that one resident thinks is only about money, but also of all the abusers who wear the same uniform.

And though it is not to the same degree, I feel something of what James feels when I wear my collar out in public. Though I’m a Lutheran, people don’t generally see a difference, and whatever experience they’ve had with clergy, I’m sure, is projected onto me. And even if a collar were not associated with horrible sins committed against children, it still represents a burden to be borne. A priest friend of mine said that the collar actually restrained and bounded his actions, because he knew that it represented religion, holiness, Christianity, and the Church as a whole. He wore it all the time, including to the movies and the bar. It meant he wasn’t anonymous, and he had to think twice about everything he was doing or not doing. In Lutheran terms, it’s the first function of the Law, restraining outward sin.

James is not a perfect man, however. He faces his weakness and inadequacy in his parish, but also with the daughter he had before he was a priest. So he is not an otherworldly Christ figure, detached from the mire of the sinners around him (which is fitting, since that wasn’t true of Jesus either). But James’ Calvary comes for the same reasons as Christ’s: because he is the target of a sinner’s hatred as the innocent representative of a God who appears to be absent.

Even more, when he tells his daughter that people might do well to focus more on virtues than on sins, his daughter asks him what virtue he would start with. Forgiveness, he says, seems to be sorely needed. And so the final scene plays out as a picture of Jesus’ “Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they are doing.”

It’s hard for me to express how moving I find this film, and I’m afraid to say too much because I don’t think I can do it justice. But even though you wouldn’t have found church groups buying out theaters to screen it, Calvary is perhaps the most deeply Christian modern film that I have seen. It isn’t shy about how cynical the sins of Christians, especially those who most publicly represent Christianity, have made people. And Calvary takes place in a nation that, maybe more than any other, is fundamentally identified by its religious history and conflicts. That’s a familiarity that seems to have bred a particularly cavalier contempt. The violence and cheap blasphemy of the cynics feels real. And because it does, the character and actions of Father James are all the more stark against such a background.

Calvary is not always easy to watch, and—I will warn anyone who hasn’t seen it—there is a particularly violent scene at the end of the movie from which you might want to avert your eyes. But this is the actual world in which we live and always have lived: a world full of unanswerable horror and tragedy. Father James gives us a picture of Jesus (in a vicarious, though not atoning, death) that is unlike all the far more common sentimental, white-washed, or shallow Christ figures in modern fiction or film—actual or invented. And that is what gives the portrayal its power.