“Better to illuminate than merely to shine, to deliver to others contemplated truths than merely to contemplate.” ~ St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II q. 188 a. 6 co.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

No "Pitch Black" Heart: Seeing the Sacred in "Calvary"

I know that many people sat in shocked silence in theaters across the world last year as Calvarya film that uses the priest abuse scandal as its plot-driving devicefaded to black. I was not one of them. I was sobbing and sobbing between puffs of, "Thank you, God! Thank you, God!" Perhaps it was the benefit of first seeing the movie in the privacy of my own home with no audience but my husband beside me. No need to feel self-conscious, no crowd-reaction carrying me along with it, no wondering what the guy behind me who munched on popcorn through gut-wrenching scene after gut-wrenching scene might be thinking now. But really, I believe it was that I had just witnessed the most beautiful, perfect ending to any movie ever made.

When I returned the DVD to Redbox, a notification popped up on my phone: "Did you enjoy the movie? Rate it now!" I clicked, scrolled, and beheld with horror the comments left by other viewers, such as, "I thought this was going to be funny, but instead it was sick and twisted and gross. I wish someone had warned me." *one star* I sat with my mouth hanging open as I clicked *five stars* hoping to tip the scale of humanity away from the gaping mouth of despair.

Dear disgruntled viewer: Yes, Calvary has been billed as a comedy but that is terribly misleading. (It is hilarious several times but should never appear in a Netflix lineup adjacent to Tommy Boy.) Yes, some of the content was sick and twisted and gross, but that was not the point of the movie. That was the villain. That was what the hero, Fr. James, was fighting against. And though I guess you missed it, the priest won. The sick and twisted and gross were restored to their proper place: beneath the heel of the Holy.


I intend for this post to be read by people who have already seen the film. Just stop now if you haven't and come back later once you have. If you need a refresher on the plot and the characters, plus some excellent commentary, here is Fr. Barron for you. He gives a beautiful exposition of Fr. James as a Good Shepherd. I intend to fill in one gap left by him, and to challenge the leading tag line that was used for promotional purposes:


Clearly, this is the darling favorite quote of someone very close to the film since it even appears here, on the official website. I'll grant that it is an inventive whodunit, though that made-up word seems far too flippant to stand so close to Fr. James's fluttering cassock. Maybe it's supposed to be really metarepresenting the oft flippant parishoners. But there's really no excuse for the second half, for this film's heart is anything but black. Rather, it is bruised, pierced, enthorned, bleeding, and burning. It is the Sacred Heart of Christ.

Happily, the actor who plays Fr. James, the unparalleled Brendan Gleeson, noticed this:

The Sacred Heart actually appears in the film, also. But apparently, given his, "Aw yeah, cool," in that interview, the director did not intend what I'm about to describe. But as the second half of that clip explains, that doesn't matter. It's art that goodthis blog's most cherished theme.

Fiona, Fr. James's daughter, notices that he has no photographs in his bedroom. But he does have two images on opposite walls from one another: a crucifix with a prie dieu beneath it and a painting of the Sacred Heart. These are the two depictions of Christ that he wakes to, prays with, and sees before sleeping. And they are the two main themes of the film. The crucifix is more obvious, given that the title of the movie comes from the hill on which the Crucifixion took place. It also typifies the penultimate scene, the hero's willing self-sacrifice and the murder of a man in persona Christi. The Sacred Heart is more subtle. It is signaled briefly that fateful Sunday morning as Fr. James kneels at his prie dieu, making his peace with God. The camera is pointed at the opposite wall, and we see the painting. The priest's head moves up, eclipsing the imagebecoming the image. He will carry it with him to his death.

The scene on the beach is gruesome, gory, excruciating in the way that the Crucifixion is. But the movie does not end there. I think many people were so shocked by the gunshot that they were catatonic for the next few minutes. But those few minutes are everything. First, a panning montage of all of the characters: some signal a hint of positive change, others do not. There are glimmers of hope, but not enough to revive you from the beach scene. But then, the camera slides into the prison and we find Fionasomber, silent, waiting. She is there to talk to her father's killer. At this point, your soul should be climbing the rungs of a ladder out of Hell, one step per beat of this moment. Why is she there? How is she there? This fragile creature who had not long ago attempted suicide is now performing one of the most heroic of all human tasks: forgiveness. She learned it from her father, implicitly and explicitly. He lit that torch in her heart, and she now carries it with her, burning, pierced, bleeding, open.

Fr. Barron claims that Fiona is smiling at him. She isn't quite. Her face is far more complicated and even more imploring than that. Her dripping eyes shine with the light of God. Her closed lips pin her to her chair, steadying her like a rock, waiting for an answer to her kind and gentle invitation. Fr. Barron leaves his comments there as if that is the ending. But I submit that it is rather the climax of the drama, superseding even the beach scene. For Jack, pulling that trigger was easy compared to lifting that phone to his ear. Will he do it? Will he open himself to that light and answer her tortured heart with his own? Will the horrors that he has endured be defeated, and the horrors that he has committed be redeemed? Fiona's forgiveness is beautiful and crucial; but the acceptance of forgivenessthat is what saves. Jack could back away, crying, sputtering, turning his gaze from hers just as he did with her father before her. He could stumble back into the pit, perhaps never to leave it again. But he does not. He locks eyes with her and we watch as she reels him in with her love. A literal call to conversion has been answered. Despite all likelihoodall manner of temptation, Jack has not despaired. After Calvary comes the Empty Tomb. This moment is like the shot of light shining through Christ's glorified wound at the end of The Passion. The music is perfect. The acting is perfect. The editing is perfecta dénouement for all time.

The film is hard to watch. It is gritty and grinds against a multitude of sensitivities. But it is so very real. This is what happens in the wake of a scandal so devastating as the priest abuses. These are the seven deadly sins run amok in the field with the shepherd chasing after them. Yet it is alsofirmly and clearlythe lost sheep, found. Through its ending, this film has revealed itself to be a perfect story, because it is a complete storya eucatastrophic one. Fr. James says, "My time will never be gone." Here is an opportunity to believe in those words.

As I've watched people leave the Church citing the abuse scandal as their leading reason, I've often thought, "There must be a movie. A story about this so good and moving that it can show that the Spotless Bride of Christ is greater than the sum of Her sinful parts, and can halt this exodus in its tracks." Movies can be that powerful. They can change hearts and minds by capturing the imagination and stirring the soul. Thanks be to God, that film has been made. Many people have seen it, but not enough. Many people have misunderstood it. Explain it to them. Many people have lauded it as a masterpiece without fully knowing why. This is why:


For a lovely and rich treatment of this movie, be sure to read this from Aleteia, "Calvary": A Hymn to Sacramental Life (in a Minor Key).

Here is an important article by Steven Greydanus, "Does the priest in 'Calvary' recommend mortal sin?"

Though this might not affect anyone else the way it did me, here is a song that I listened to ten times in a row while on an elliptical machine right before I started writing this. It helped me to digest the themes. I can try to explain how if pressed.  

I could write much more. I would love to write a book and teach a class on this movie. I wanted to write about the dog, the cannibal, the cassock, the marriage, the water, the fire, on and on. Please do comment or email me if you want to keep discussing. I'm all fingertips.

Also, in case you missed it, Through a Glass Brightly was nominated for two Sheenazing Blogger Awards.


  1. Jack seems so viscerally in need of grace and forgiveness. From the very beginning of the film we our senses are graphically besieged by the loathsome sins done to him and by his apparent transmutation into a loathsome person.
    Jack’s anger is not created by a hatred of the Church. Instead it is created by what he sees as a betrayal. We are led to infer that he was involved as a young man in the life of his parish because of his regular contact with a priest. Might we see the abuse he experienced as betraying a loyal son of the church? And might that be the source of his anger? Even Fr James’ decision to go to this most unusual Calvary seems to reflect sympathy, even pity, for the tortured Jack. Jack is never the unforgivable Judas. He is the vengeful, screaming crowd in Jerusalem demanding the blood of a good man. And the very love Fr James shows to Jack affirms Christ’s own words: Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. But do we ever hate Jack? I'm not so sure. After watching I increasingly wonder if the person most in need of redemption wasn't Jack, but was instead Fiona.
    The iconography and symbology of this character is so sophisticated. She took my breath away. She seems to have been prepared for writer John Michael McDonagh by over a century of Catholic novels. She is, in many ways, the inverse of Graham Greene’s Sarah Miles. Where Sarah’s atoning decision saves Maurice, Fiona is both saved and savior. (There are powerful shades of St Mary Magdalene in the character of Fiona. Fiona’s formerly defiant openly licentious sexuality is affirmed in the film. And perhaps more subtly, most Medieval and Baroque masters regularly depicted Magdalene with red hair. Check out paintings by Nicholas Regnier, Guido Reni, El Greco, Carlo Crivelli, Piero de Cosimo, and others—all portraying Mary Magdalene with actress Kelly Reilly’s flowing red hair)
    Ultimately Fiona struck me as a subtle compression of all three men at Calvary in one person. She is, when we meet her, the unbelieving and scoffing first thief. She mocks her father’s vocation; she makes light of her own sinfulness. She resents him, asking why he didn’t save himself from what she sees as a pathetic life when he had the power to do so. And she mocks his innate goodness. She is a child of a priest, not of the church
    By the middle of the film she has turned into the penitent thief St Dismas. She loves her father, and wants to be with him, even if she is unsure how this will happen. We see her physically affectionate with her father, wanting his presence, and wanting to be remembered to him, like any child.
    By the end of the film, Fiona seems to reflect the person of Christ the God-man himself, extending undeserved forgiveness to those who least deserve it. And Kathryn is so right to mention the reflection of their faces beside each other. The minute I saw it I thought of Russian realist Nicolai Ge’s 1893 Christ and the Thief. As Fiona and Jack’s faces reflect together, one can’t help but weep. Some reviewers mentioned they didn’t see what was redeeming in the film. Seems like in reality there is so much redemption one doesn’t know where to start.

    1. Miles, this is all so beautiful. Thank you very much for adding your thoughts. I especially like your references to art and literature. Such a rich, rich film this is!

  2. Thank you for another great post, Katy. I am amazed that a movie dealing with the priest abuse scandal could come out of Ireland that is as positive about the priesthood (or at least a priest) as this movie is. I would love to hear more about the other elements of the movie that you mention, especially the death of the priest's dog. I watched the movie with Brian and we got to talking about it but didn't really come up with anything.

    I have to admit, though, I didn't enjoy the movie. While there is a lot in it to admire, and you bring out what is most admirable (the comment above mine is really great too; thanks, Miles!), I thought the aesthetic of the film was off. The shots of Ireland (Yeats's Ireland, no less, Sligo!) were gorgeous, but the characters, except for the priest and his daughter, were two dimensional. Their ironic manner made it unclear whether they were to be taken seriously (this has to be why someone thought it was a comedy). It made them seem insincere, as though they were baiting the priest with their disgusting confessions and testimonials. That by itself isn’t entirely unbelievable – I can recall situations where I felt like I was being baited – but that sort of thing comes from people in passing, not regular church goers, and not from an entire parish, which seemed to be the case in the movie. Listening to Brendan Gleeson’s comments made me wish he had directed the film. He seemed to understand the heart of the story much better than the director himself.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Fr. Mike. I found this article helpful regarding the film's realism: http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2014/12/calvarys-lost-catholicism

      And I really bought the darkness of the characters given the excruciating darkness of the abuse scandal. I'm guilty of just putting that whole idea out of my head, but the movie forced me to carefully consider what that specific evil was and still is, and what sort of damage would result in its wake. That made the ending all the more powerful.

  3. I hope you'll permit a plug for a differnet perspective that I wrote a couple months ago: http://dsdoconnor.com/2014/12/14/when-good-shepherds-let-in-the-wolves/

    Towards the end of this post you wrote that Calvary was "hard to watch." I agree. But it was hard to watch in a completely different way than, for example, The Passion was. The Passion was hard because of how incredibly edifying it was. Calvary was hard because of how incredibly dissolute it was. Trust your hearts, my friends.

    1. Daniel, thank you for sharing your perspective. I honestly found watching Calvary _not_ completely different from watching the Passion, which I also love. There's plenty of evil and darkness in the latter. Yes, the priest is not sinless like Christ is, but he is still in persona Christi carrying his cross to his death, taunted all along the way. He makes mistakes just as St. Peter did, and we all do. But he is a martyr all the same.

      I think I would have written a post very similar to yours about ten years ago. I wouldn't have been able to appreciate this movie beyond the many disturbing elements. But I've learned a lot about human nature since then, and I was forced to seriously consider the sex abuse scandal in the Church by this movie. The horror of it is immense. The fallout from it has been catastrophic. I thought the movie was very honest about disillusionment, and that is partly what made the ending so very powerful. The fact that Fiona and Jack can have a moment like that after everything that they've experienced is extraordinary beyond words.

      My heart sang at the end of this movie, and trusting in that is what prompted me to write the post.

    2. My reaciton (*spoiler alert*):

      The altar boy who left his paints to run TOWARDS the wounded Father at the end of the film was so evocative of St. John that, in a moment, the vast sweep of the masterpiece became clear. We have just walked the path of Holy Week.

  4. After I saw this movie, I was very impressed with it. It is a very good movie. But it frustrated me because it could have easily been a GREAT movie, and it just missed. You are right to point out all the very good aspects of the movie, because they are touching in the extreme. At the end, I had tears streaming down my face. But rather than be uplifted and inspired, in the end, one is a bit depressed. The parishioners are such blackguards, such odious creeps that ultimately the movie is a bit depressing. Now, I know that is part of the whole point - that even among a world of horrible people who did not deserve Father James or Christ, he came anyway and died for us. Into an unrelentingly dark world, he came and redeemed those who merit it not at all. I understand that. But humanity is not in fact all creeps. I'm afraid any movie that represents the world as unremittingly dark is bound to miss, simply because that is not so. It is a movie of our times, when we can't see, or are too scared to see, a brightness in life that is natural. Instead, we pride ourselves on being cynical. This is a fault of our times and is a severe weakness. Look at how the director sort of sneers at the sacred heart of Jesus image, while Brendan Gleeson seems to understand it better than the director. Still, a very good movie for all the reasons you cite.

  5. All interesting comments. Here's a thought on the characters apart from Jack, Fiona and Father. Most of the people I meet are unidimensional--not even two dimensional!-- to me--not because they really are, but because I don't for whatever reason enter fully into life with them. Once I do, they, like Jack and Fiona (who could be experienced as two-dimensional as well, but weren't because of how we are presented them -as opposed to how Father really experiences them) become more real and engaging--not because they have changed but because I have. A reach, I now, but isn't all artistic commentary a bit of a reach, from inside to out? Taken in that way, the end reminds me of the Angel's admonition at the Ascension: Why do you stand here looking at Heaven? Left unsaid is the notion that there's work to be done here---among those two-dimensional characters who are as real as Fiona, Jack and Father though we don't see it yet. Good blog and interesting discussion.