A NEW movie making the rounds on the independent film circuit is Calvary, the story of an Irish priest in a church consumed with anger over the sexual abuse of children by clergy. The film has some great aspects, but if it had come with a spiritual health warning, I’d never have seen it, and I think I’d have been happier. So this is that warning, for any readers who might share my fragility.
First, though, some reasons why you might want to see it (I could give more, but I’m trying to avoid giving too much away). It’s well written (by someone who has a real grasp of the gospel), well acted, well directed, set in a beautiful landscape brilliantly photographed, and a suspense-filled whodunit as well as an almost unbearably perceptive social commentary. It’s one of the most thought provoking films I’ve seen in a long time; it made me think long and hard about the church, the society we live in, and what it means for Christians to share in Christ’s sufferings.
The health warning is necessary because its depiction of the sinful nature of humanity is so blunt, and hits the viewer so hard, that by the end of the film I felt as though I had been on the wrong end of the baseball bat that appears in one scene. Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not ‘graphic’ or ‘explicit’, in fact it’s incontrovertible proof that heaving bodies are not needed for the portrayal of sex, or rivers of blood and guts for the portrayal of violence. Hollywood could learn a lot from the way Calvary shocks the viewer. The shock comes at least in part from the fact that the sadism and the perversion is presented as so deeply embedded, and in the sort of people we see every day—including the one in the bathroom mirror. As I say, by the closing credits I felt as though I had not only been physically assaulted but demeaned and humiliated, and I was ready to hit back. I felt as though it had been done by someone who delighted in rubbing my nose in his own anger, hatred and self-abuse; if the producer had introduced himself to me after the screening, I might well have returned evil for evil in a way that would have got me arrested, or at least thrown out of the cinema.
It was this anger at what I’d been exposed to that I had to think hardest about. I couldn’t be taking it personally in the literal sense, I’m not (yet) at the stage where I could suspect the producer actually had Philip Wainwright in mind as he put it all together. But insofar as sin is directed against our fellow human beings as well as against God, it is an assault on the dignity of every human being—we’re all worth more than the face values shown here, no matter what our failings—and it may be understandable, and even not inappropriate, to resent it on behalf of mankind. But, as the film suggests, and Jesus explicitly says, we are called to forgive, even when beaten up only metaphorically, and by a movie producer who doesn’t know we exist. And the angrier we are about the violence done to us, the more important it is to forgive it. The anger of man does not work the righteousness of God. But perhaps it does help us understand the wrath of God against sin: if this is how a close look at sin affects me, when the sin in my own heart is at least a shadow of what faced me on the screen, the Bible’s portrayal of the anger sin arouses in God, Who is holy beyond our comprehension, must be the literal truth. How could He be anything but angry at what His creation has come to?
I wasn’t strong enough to bear the violence that I felt had been done to me as part of my sharing in the sufferings of Christ. I’m still struggling to forgive whoever it was that conceived this film. But it may be that God is using the film to teach me something. I may have been happier if I’d never seen it, but I might be a bit wiser for having done so. In any case, I trust that God is at work, and will bring good out of it. I can’t bring myself to recommend it, but perhaps God will put it to use in your case too.
PS, if you’re going to see the movie, I’d suggest doing so before reading any comments that get made on this post; any detailed discussion of it is bound to include some spoilers.