The Master of death will come soon enough—and perhaps we can already hear His footsteps. There is no need to forestall His hour nor to fear it. When He enters into us to destroy, as it seems, the virtues and the forces that we have distilled with so much loving care out of the sap of the world, it will be as a loving fire to consummate our completion in union. — The Divine Milieu
There’s a well-known exchange in the documentary Bowling for Columbine wherein Michael Moore interviews Marilyn Manson about politics, media culture, and his supposed influence on Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the perpetrators of the Columbine shooting. Pretty quickly after the 1999 tragedy, Manson’s violent lyrics, “trenchcoat mafia” look, and anti-authoritarian attitude were scorned by parents and politicians, and the man himself was made a primary scapegoat for the carnage done by two troubled teens. Moore asks Manson what he would say to them if he could have talked to them directly: “I wouldn’t say a single word to them,” Manson said. “I’d listen to what they have to say. That’s what no one did.”
Wise words from a surprising source. I thought of them after seeing Calvary, the new film from John McDonaugh. (Here be spoilers, natch.) The film begins with Father James (Brendan Gleeson), pastor of a small Irish parish, listening in a confession booth to something startling: a mystery parishioner, abused by a priest as a child, threatens to kill him—an innocent priest—as payment for the sins of the Church. The man tells Father James to settle his affairs, make his peace with God, and meet him on the beach in a week’s time. Father James doesn’t fight back, call the police, or flee: he listens, letting the heavy words sink in, and then embarks on his allotted week bearing a new and heavy cross.
But it’s a burden, it becomes clear, he must bear alone. His fellow parish priest (a nervous, judgmental type) doesn’t share Father James’s relative serenity, earned from his pre-priesthood life. As a layman, I’d imagine, Father James experienced the same loss, doubt, and other common plagues of the soul; it’s what makes him unlike the other priests, “too smart” for this parish as one woman puts it and yet faithful enough to abide in it. Yet even as a priest he’s still a sinner, struggling with alcohol and the desire to flee. His parishioners aren’t a reliable source of inspiration or support, their interactions with Father James throughout the week ranging from tepid respect to outright scorn. And his adult daughter, visiting after a botched suicide attempt, struggles to reconcile her father’s new pastoral role with his lack of paternal guidance in the wake of her mother’s death. He’s trying his best with the deck stacked against him, the trauma of the Catholic church sex abuse scandal still fresh for his wary flock.
Simultaneously, Father James tries to deduce his would-be killer’s identity. Like many whodunits, most of the players in his life are suspects: is it the cuckolded town butcher he confronted about beating his wife? the pompous, grandiloquent millionaire whose support he spurned? the sarcastic male prostitute who’s contemptuous of the Church? or the nihilistic doctor hardened by the suffering around him? Father James fields each of these parishioners’ caustic commentaries —against him, the Church, or whatever else travails them. He listens, but also wearies. The parade of sin feels too long, too hopelessly unredeemable. As King Theodin remarks in The Return of the King, “What can men do against such reckless hate?”
And what can we do? Marilyn Manson’s response aside, I doubt merely sitting down with the Columbine killers and listening to them would have persuaded them not to commit their heinous crimes. So for as much as Father James listens patiently to the troubles of his congregants, there’s not much he can do. He can administer absolution, sure, but only to the penitent, of which there are few. But now, with a very real target on his back, the time for talk is over: what is he to do?
Calvary winds through Father James’ (final?) week with that question in mind. It’s Gleeson’s charisma as an actor that keeps things steady throughout this tumultuous journey. Gleeson teems with soulful presence and hard-won wisdom. This differs greatly from his role as Sgt. Boyle in The Guard (also directed by McDonaugh) yet still retains a similar good-heartedness. McDonaugh brings the celestial themes of sin, sacrifice, and redemption back down to earth in this darkly comic story, in a community that really could be anyone’s. It’s a welcome relief from the spate of sterile, overtly “Christian” films that proselytize more than ponder, that make good sermons but usually not good art. Calvary is good art because it isn’t sterile; it’s not afraid to get dirty, to search for truth and beauty in the muck of faith on earth. With life and death as the stakes, Calvary’s search is on indeed.