'Calvary' Review: Film Offers No Redemption Despite Perfect Opportunity and Title

Promo for the film 'Calvary.'
Promo for the film 'Calvary.' | (Photo: Facebook/Calvary)

"Calvary" (rated R) opens in theaters Friday, August 1 and offers the unpredictable story of a man abused by a priest in the Catholic Church and how his experience affects a so-called "good" priest in Ireland.

There's a hymn by William R. Newell, "At Calvary," that has the following refrain: "Mercy there was great and grace was free; pardon there was multiplied to me; there my burdened soul found liberty at Calvary." Many may be familiar with this hymn and perhaps the film brought it to mind, but there is no mercy or grace to be found in "Calvary."

The film focuses on the life of Father James, portrayed by Brendan Gleeson after he is threatened by a member of his congregation who confesses that he was sexually abused by a priest for five years and intends to kill James, a "good priest" in retribution. The intended assailant's identity is known only to Father James, but those who watch 'Calvary' may recognize the voice.

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After the confrontation, the priest lives out his week as normally as possible – checking in on congregants, making amends with his daughter, and generally pondering the end of his life. For those wondering how Father James became a biological father, it is explained in the film.

The climax comes when he goes to the beach to meet his assailant. As he approaches Father James, the audience sees a gun in his hand and an intense look on his face. He confronts the priest and airs all of his grievances from the past. When Father James informs him that he does not have to go through with his plan, the man insists, "Yes, I do. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy" and fires one shot into him. The blast stuns him but does not kill him, allowing the priest the opportunity to offer more advice to the disturbed shooter. Father James uses his words to try and convince him that there is no reason to take a life … that he is sorry for the pain his assailant suffered.

One might suspect that there is forgiveness and mercy to be found in the film, but perhaps the forgiveness and mercy does not come from another person but rather from one's self … at least in "Calvary." Father James clearly wrestles with the actions of his colleagues and the pain that one caused his congregant. But should he be held responsible for the actions of another?

The film may leave audiences angry at the Catholic Church given the intensity of hatred shown toward a "good" Catholic priest and his congregation. Thousands of young men and boys were victimized by priests, but that is true across denominations, even though many of those stories from other Christian sects were not told or heard. In this case, the film could have chosen any denomination to examine or perhaps even make the film non-denominational. Surely audiences could have related to the pain and trauma of childhood sexual assault and rape.

While there is much to be made about trigger warnings – warnings shown ahead of films or TV shows to prepare someone who has a sensitivity to an issue, say child abuse – there definitely could have been at least two for "Calvary." One, of course, would be to warn sexual assault survivors of the topic of abuse and another for violence. There are several extremely graphic scenes that could trigger someone sensitive to violence.

It's hard to find redemption in this film, which is disappointing because it could have provided some sense of hope or reconciliation. Instead, there is an overwhelming sense that sometimes there is no explanation for why things happen and that pain, left untreated, can lead to disastrous results that hurt innocent people. Viewers need only to turn on the TV or open a newspaper to see that – they don't need to go to the theater and endure an entire week with a man possibly condemned to death.

Watch the trailer for "Calvary" HERE:

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