Everyone has a cross to bear. But a parish priest tending his flock in Ireland’s County Sligo has really gotten more than his share in Calvary, a movie that addresses archetypal Pluto issues of power, abandonment and revenge, as well as Neptune themes of sacrifice and victimization.
Directed and written by John Michael McDonagh, Calvary, named for the site of Christ’s crucifixion, doesn’t take long to make the connection between the movie’s title and a modern-day reenactment of what happened on Golgotha.
Before opening credits roll, seated in his church’s confessional booth is Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson). The person on the other side of the grille – the barrier shields the face of this confessor from the priest and the audience, too – delivers a stunning message.
The disembodied male voice of the confessor relays a tragic case of protracted sexual abuse which he suffered, starting at age seven, at the hands of a priest, long dead. But what impact would punishing a bad priest have anyway, asks the confessor? The real shock, he muses, would come from killing a good priest. The avenger says his target will be Father James whom he’ll execute the following Sunday. And, because of the loquacious nature of the tight-knit community that he shepherds, Father James knows exactly which parishioner has marked him for assassination.
In one sense, Calvary is a thriller, as the audience tries to size up the assortment of self-centered and troubled males in the venomous seaside town who might be capable of committing a revenge killing. Among the bunch: Jack (Chris O’Dowd), a butcher whose wife (Orla O’Rourke) is having an affair with an imposing African immigrant and mechanic (Isaach De Bankolé). In the mix are also obscenely wealthy but desperate executive (Dylan Moran), an atheist physician (Aidan Gillen) and a not so upstanding detective (Gary Lydon).
Father James, although weighed down by the fate he’s been dealt, feels his only recourse, in the week he’s got left, is to go about his daily business among the parishioners. He administers to an elder (M. Emmet Walsh), the grief-stricken (Marie Josée Croze), an unrepentant criminal (Domhnall Gleeson) and an inept clergyman (David Wilmot). As the days pass, noted on screen, he also deals with a deeply personal issue. Visiting him is his adult daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) – Father James had entered the priesthood shortly after his wife died, when his offspring was a child. After a botched suicide attempt, she wants to heal and forgive what she feels was Dad’s abandonment of her because he put God and his vocation first.
Calvary depicts the gradual stripping down of a priest’s defenses in the face of a terrible threat. It also nimbly plays with some key archetypes, first shining a harsh light on the Plutonic, sexual power of certain priests who, as proverbial denizens of the underworld, assaulted innocent children, the most Neptunian of victims. However, in a tragic role reversal, the now adult male victim, who has remained in that childhood state of hurt, aggressively takes on his own Underworld mantle of control over the life of another blameless albeit older innocent.
At the movie’s start, this quote, attributed to St. Augustine, appears on screen: “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.” The brilliance of Calvary is, in the end, its demonstration that Calvaries – potential conduits of salvation – happen every day, with only a person’s free will and faith to help embrace them as fate. A masterpiece.
Archetype: Victim, Redeemer, Savior, Sacrificer
Astrology Archetype: ♆ ♇ (Neptune, Pluto)