Spotlight on Calvary
The world has long suspected that the Catholic Church isn’t exactly nice or living up to the ideals of the Gospels; this isn’t news. Catholics themselves, especially those forced to endure the strictures of parochial schools and the swinging yardsticks of imperious nuns, often are the first to admit this. (Think of the late great George Carlin, among the most vocal and certainly the most hilarious of all the self-admitted “Recovering Catholics.” If you are some politically correct reader already worried about an irreverent line being crossed in this essay, I can only regret that Carlin isn’t here to shame you into having some courage and a modicum of good sense.) Power breeds corruption, as is well known. Historical lowlights straight outta Rome include the Crusades, the Inquisition/Reformation period (especially the corruption and decadence of the Medici popes that so justifiably drew Martin Luther’s ire), and well, pretty much everything.
Perhaps the absolute nadir, though, would be the child abuse scandals that rocked the United States, Ireland, Mexico, Germany, France, Australia, and elsewhere in the last few decades. Such episodes are particularly tragic, as the victims were the Church’s most innocent and helpless members, taken advantage by the clergy, authority figures supposed to embody not only community trust but also celibate godliness. There are tragedies and then there are those tragedies that also have the words “sex” and “children” involved. Sadly, these turned out to be shockingly common, with tens of thousands documented cases. The numbers boggle the mind. For years the Church hierarchy at every level had responded to these incidents with cover-ups and worse: a frequent modus operandi was just shuffle the offenders to different dioceses, thereby enabling such sexual predators and their groping hands to find more prey. Hell knows no devil like the one wearing the collar, the victims or the parents might shout. The Church has paid out something like $3 billion (!) in settlements in the U.S. alone. I am not sure what amount of money compensates for lives ruined. Could any institution ever atone for such transgressions? Should we ever dare to forgive, as presumably Jesus would do?
Two recent films tackle this sensitive topic, including the Best Picture winner of 2015, Spotlight. A far better and much more intriguing film, however, is 2014’s Calvary. The provocative, spiritually rich, and very literary Calvary still has me thinking and wondering. Spotlight, in contrast, only has me wondering what the Oscar voters were thinking.
Spotlight is a fairly well made but by-the-numbers drama, a quaint tribute to lost art of newspaper reporting—and to the power America’s increasingly archaic print media once held to make a real difference. All the President’s Men, still exhilarating forty years later, makes Spotlight look like child’s play, though. Yes, the Spotlight reporters unearth secrets through a combination of cleverness, gumption, and good ol’ fashioned diligence involving good ol’ fashioned spiral notebooks and manila folders. They overcome the Church’s stonewalling and thuggish muscle-flexing. Oh, and of course, they nab the bad guys, all while the actors portraying them get to drop their “r”s and proffer (pronounced “prawhfuh”) goofy Boston accents. The screenplay—which also won an Oscar—veers toward the sappy; maybe Martin Luther or John Calvin should have been called in to do a rewrite. In the end it just all feels very surface-level. What is the message viewers take as they exit this experience? Pedophilia is bad? Check. The Church was basically evil? Yup. Boston Globe reporters were resourceful and wicked smaht? Agreed. Newspapers were cool? I suppose, at least better than today’s Fox News and inane Facebook updates. Ah, the daily city newspaper—some of us can still feel the ink on our heads and hear the turning and folding of pages. Where did you go, Joe DiMaggio? Into the recycling bin? If not for the subject matter, Spotlight would be a completely forgettable film.
Boston Irish is one thing, but Calvary is Ireland Irish. The scars from Catholicism on the emerald isle run much deeper and longer. Calvary is an astounding cinematic achievement, complicated and troubling in stirring way. The opening scene—indeed, the very opening line of the picture—is in a confessional booth, where a man reveals to Father James (in a tour de force performance by Brendan Gleeson), “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.” We see only James’s curious and anguished face. The man then details being molested by a priest, rapes that happened hundreds of times over five years. Father James is rightfully at a loss for words. The anonymous man then reveals that he is going to kill Father James: not because he was the molester, somehow, complicit, or in any way worthy of reproach, but precisely because he is innocent and has done nothing wrong. Calvary, of course, (also known as Golgotha) refers to the hill on which Jesus was crucified, and the title immediately is pregnant with meaning. “There’s no point in killing a bad priest,” the voice continues, “…but killing a good one, that would be a shock, now. They wouldn’t know what to make of that.” He then reiterates his promise to kill Father James, permitting him a week to get his “house in order” and make his peace with God. The deed is to happen on the beach on the following Sunday. It is one of the more arresting opening scenes that I can recall in a motion picture.
It is not a whodunit mystery but a who is going to do it and will it actually be done. The audience does not know the would-be murderer. Father James seems to know but won’t violate the sanctity of confession. His superior, Bishop Montgomery, says James would be justified in going to the authorities because of this blatantly unpenitent threat of a serious crime. Will Father James inform the police? Or will he make a run for it? Or even try to kill the man first?
The story is set in a small community on the western coast of Ireland, in County Sligo, known for its surf. Horses gallop on the sand as ocean winds rustle the long grass. Father James is described as being “just a little too sharp for this parish.” While he personally is liked well enough (well, more or less) in the community, his profession is not. The townies show him no respect as a priest and flout their sins around him. He is physically threatened more than once, and even gets his ass kicked.
The cast of characters among the nihilistic townspeople includes Veronica Brennan, a flirty adulteress intent on pushing the vulgarity in her conversations with Father James until the priest blushes. Even oral sex references are not off-limits. She shamelessly tells the father in advance of her trysts and delights in his flummoxed reaction. Standing in a skimpy red dress in front of the Church as it burns to the ground, she throws back her head and laughs. Asked by Father James what she wants to do with her life, she responds, “Nothing.”
Her husband, Jack, seems to care even less about her adultery than she does—more than that, he seems to approve. She’s happier and he feels less under surveillance at home. Even beyond that, Jack teases Father James with pedophilia jokes as if they are friendly small talk.
The local police investigator is a homosexual who sleeps with a tough-talking male prostitute, Leo. Leo bunny-hops and shakes his ass at Father James, propositioning him, all while wearing a cross on a necklace.
Living on the outskirts of town is a cantankerous elderly American writer openly planning his suicide. The writer asks Father James for help procuring a gun, and the priest obliges.
Then there’s Frank, the jaded sarcastic doctor, seen sniffing coke in between his smirks and atheistic wise-cracks. Acknowledging that an atheist doctor may seem like a cliché, with its “one parts humanism and nine parts gallows humor,” he puts cigarettes out on removed organs. Some are lives less sacred than others, he tells Father James, and then returns to work: “Excuse me…I have to go kill somebody.”
One parishioner who actually turns to Father James for life guidance is Milo, a young man considering either killing or joining the army, due to pent up sexual aggression (he needs to kill someone, in other words). Father James does not know which option is worse. He recommends pornography as a release, but Milo says that, now having moved on transsexual porn, he feels he has exhausted its uses. As this suggests, no one in the town seems to have any conversational filter. Father James often seems bewildered but never exactly surprised.
Freddie Joyce also asks to consult with Father James. Joyce is a former pupil imprisoned for the murder and cannibalism of several girls. “God made me…so he understands me,” he claims, expecting forgiveness from above for his crimes. Again the priest is not sure why his unrepentant flock even wants to speak to him.
At the local watering hole there is the surly pubkeeper, Brendan, who calls the priest’s daughter a whore right in front of both of them and more than once refers the Church as a mob. “Your time is gone, and you don’t even fucking realize it,” he growls, and by that he means all priests. Brendan is not shy about taking a baseball bat to Father James.
I did say daughter. James became a priest after his wife’s death, and returned to Ireland while his daughter Fiona was raised in London. Fiona is fresh from a failed suicide attempt, having made the classic error of cutting across her wrists instead of down. James may be a good priest but is not exactly a good parent, despite clearly loving his daughter deeply.
At the church, we find a few more characters, notably a blasé altar boy with a penchant for drinking the communion wine and lying about it, along with James’s colleague, Father Leary. His colleague Father Leary is naïve, out of touch, has no inspiration, originality, no apparent calling or integrity, as James points out. “Why are you a priest at all? You should be a fucking accountant in a fucking insurance firm!” he exclaims. As James’s daughter derisively says of Leary, “That’s the future of the priesthood.”
A relatively new arrival in the area is a wealthy financier and all-around prick, Michael Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald urinates on an expensive painting in front of Father James just to show off how much money he has—so much that he claims not to care about it, although he can still of only monetary ways to show this. Father James responds dispassionately, “People like you have pissed on everything else I suppose, so why not that too?” In the same vein (ha), Fitzgerald donates 100,000 euros to the church “as amends.” He admits that he is in some hot water for “certain irregularities,” and also that his wife and children have left him, but that he doesn’t care. He doesn’t feel guilt, but, he says, “I feel like I ought to feel guilty…isn’t that the same thing?” In a line that could be mistaken for Gordon Gekko’s slogans in Wall Street, Fitzgerald declares, “There’s no such thing as too much! There’s only not enough!” It is an over-the-top display of the sin of avarice.
Generally it seems like the residents of Sligo all want to be left to their own devices without Father James’s homilies. He represents guilt and something irritatingly outdated. But then there are moments in this film, including a touching scene with a grieving French widow, that suggest something still very present and important about Catholic faith—that is not just a mere reflection, as James cynically remarks, of the fear of death. We wonder, is his religious commitment made of stronger stuff or will he run? God alternately feels close and far away, and while the film seems to end on a note of understanding and forgiveness, it is not without a profound ambivalence that will remain with the viewer long after. But that somehow feels like a solace, oddly enough. I think even George Carlin would love this film, God rest his soul.