KILLING A PRIEST
ON A SUNDAY
THAT’LL BE A
It is very rare that a film compels me to pick up a pen and start writing. Hollywood is a machine that continues to grind out soulless block busters. Whilst studying for an MA in Creative and Professional Writing, my cohort was lucky enough to have Philip Reeve, Carnegie award-winning author of the Mortal Engines series as a guest speaker. Reeve described Hollywood not as a town that makes movies but as a town full of lawyers making deals about movies.
However we can’t blame Hollywood’s bastardization of books and franchises we love on greed and the poor taste of the movie going public alone. People complain that writers are lazy and that there are no original ideas any more. To these people I say read Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence. In short to be a truly original artist one would have had to grow up in a vacuum. Each of us is influenced in one way or another by the proliferation of art and media we are exposed to from a very young age.
If you look at the top-grossing film’s of the 2000’s, twenty-three were remakes or adaptations. But are writers to blame? Despite the public’s protest the answer is no, because in almost all cases the initial ideas for film’s come from producers not screen writer’s. Producers are to blame for the endless barrage of crap superhero films on offer.
Hollywood film’s also have to be simplified for the International Market, explaining why they end up looking like a video game that leaves you feeling as though you have just had a lobotomy. This explains why an intelligent film like Calvary, get’s a 2-3 day screening at HMV Curzon or other independent cinema, compared to the usual ‘When will it fuck off’ run for film’s like Transformers at the local Odeon.
But what is fortunate for Hollywood often proves to be unfortunate for cinema goer’s with half a brain. If there is one thing that everyone in the world can understand it is the need to run away from by giant robots, or that it’s probably a bad idea to chat to zombies unless one of them is played by R Patz.
Another reason for the endless stream of Hollywood drivel is film projects often get trashed for bad reasons. For example, Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series has been bounced around Hollywood for years with still no film in sight. This is what writer’s call ‘Development Hell,’ and is what happens when a film gets stuck at some point during the film making process and gets lost.
What have we had recently? The Desolation of Smaug. Well they might as well have called the second Hobbit film ‘The Desolation of Tolkien.’ Then to add injury to insult we’ve got Luc Besson making a mockery of Nikita and Leon as well as The Matrix with his idiotic Lucy. For the record using 100% of your brain function results in something called SEIZURE! But not according to Lucy who discovers an annoying hand tic and a multitude of powers. The ridiculousness of the film trailer is heightened by Scarlet Johansson’s usual flat affect so that the smarter Lucy becomes the more distant and robotic the actresses performance is. There is no way I could watch a film that’s trailer is so blatant about its flawed premise.
However despite all of the above I did manage to put my reading aside for a few hours this week and watch Calvary (2014), a film touching on such greatness I was compelled to write this post. Thank God for studio’s like Fox Searchlight who not only seek quality movies like this one but who also trust audiences to embrace them.
Calvary is a wickedly funny black comedy, all fatalism and gallows humour that examines the difficulty of holding onto ones faith in a world without morality. The film takes its title from the small hill outside Jerusalem where Jesus was slain.
Calvary opens during Sunday confession with Father James (Brendan Gleeson) being told by a parishioner we can not identify that as a child he was a victim of rape and abuse by a priest. The confessor goes on to say that his abuser is dead and because he still seeks some sort of revenge, plans to kill Father James instead.
But why Father James? Because say’s the confessor – killing an innocent priest will have more impact and serve as more of a parallel to what happened to him years before than going after a deserving sinner. ‘I am going to kill you because you have done nothing wrong’. He also offers Father James a week to get his things into order before killing him.
The inciting incident, already more startling than anything to come out of Hollywood of late, plunges us into the depths of a moral crisis, with a smack of ‘who will do it?, turning the tired ‘who dun it?’ on its head. A bit like giving an Agatha Christie mystery to Chekov for a rewrite.
The opening scene is also vital in that it reveals a great deal about Father James’ character. He is far more distressed by the man’s own suffering that the threat made against his own life – the true Christian response, even rarer in film’s than every day life.
The rest of the film’s narrative arc is divided into seven day’s and is set amongst a town full of jackal’s, who may or may not be involved with the threatened crime. Could it be the larger than life butcher (Chris O’Dowd), or his unfaithful wife Veronica (Orla O’Rourke)? What about the wealthy squire (Dylan Moran), who is unable to find any meaning in anyone or anything around him? The baleful publican (Pat Short) or the doctor who revels in his patient’s suffering (Aiden Gillen)? Who can tell? They are all as sinful as each other and chaos reigns in this small Irish village.
The aerial shots of the Irish landscape are as dramatic as the film is profound. They also underscore the menace of the local characters. Father James, who strides around in his black soutane with a beard of russet and grey against the rough sea cliff’s is truly the only good man left.
Without pushing the point too far, writer-director John McDonagh makes it clear we are in the Ireland still reeling from economic collapse and the revelations of the sexual abuse scandal of the Catholic church. However to say this film is an attack on the Catholic church is to miss its point entirely.
What I love most about Calvary is that it asks us to question every institution we blindly accept without question in life. In the scene following an attack on Father James in the local pub he reminds us that all religions are guilty of horrendous crimes with his verbal tirade on Buddhists.
Among the other institutions we are asked to question are the medical profession and the military. Dr Frank Hart (Aiden Gillen) is an excellent portrayal of what a lot of doctor’s have become in the modern world. He is a proud atheist, coke snorting doctor, who sees plenty of extreme suffering in the local hospital, then relishes telling Father James and the other villagers grim stories about these victims of freak accidents. He has turned his back on healing and any pretence of a bedside manner to become a servant of misery and death.
In another scene, Father James try’s to change the mind of a socially awkward young man who wants to join the army because he believes it’s a way of venting his violent impulses. Father James tells him that young men do not join the military to go to war, they join so they can know what it is to kill a man.
Not your typical priest, Father James is a recovered alcoholic, a widower, and a father who came into the priesthood after his wife died. So when his flock tell him about their flaws and transgressions, he knows first hand what they speak of.
We also meet his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), following a failed suicide attempt, when she turns up during the one week her father has been granted by his potential murderer. Fiona does nothing to hide the fact that it was her father’s choice to join the priesthood that has left her feeling abandoned by him. She says she lost two parent’s, not one after her mother died. Fiona refer’s to him as ‘father’ as do all the villagers, forcing us to question the sacrifices that are made by those who take up a life of duty. Has he been more a father to his parishioners than his own daughter?
John McDonagh is not afraid to tackle the great questions head on: death, religion, suicide, murder, regret, revenge, redemption. Father James is an idealist clinging even more desperately to his faith: ‘There’s too much talk about sins and not enough about virtue he insists.’
Strangely enough the overarching message of McDonagh’s film seems to be that despite Ireland’s most damaging scandal, figures like Father James are needed to regenerate ethical values because we can no longer rely on institutions such as the police, the military and the medical profession. In fact through Father James’s purity and goodness what at first appears to be a scathing attack of the Catholic church instead takes on a kind of transcendence.
More accomplished than The Guard, Calvary is the second in McDonagh’s Glorious Suicide Trilogy. I eagerly await the third instalment, which is rumoured to be titled The Lame Shall Enter First. Calvary is a film that should be seen be anyone concerned for our current sense of moral wasteland. A masterpiece that is as darkly powerful as it is darkly funny. Enjoy!