As far as Brendan Gleeson’s body of work goes, his portrayal of Father James in a small seaside Irish town must stand among his finest. The gruff, introspective, and deeply human characteristics of the good priest among a bad flock dramatically make this film both hard-hitting, and emotional.
To briefly set the narrative, Father James is hearing confessions when one man says he was brutally raped by a priest as a young boy, and in revenge he intends to kill the good father James in one week. We don’t see the identity of this man until the end, but father James knows exactly who he is.
Calvary analyses the private transgressions, contradictions, and shortcomings of everyday people. Father James goes through the next week tending to the community, and finding more and more hatred. Yet he cannot compel himself to leave, and is committed to his vocation. In a sense the point is made that the clergy is so dumped on today, and seen as so perverse and abusive, but it does not outdo the immorality of the wayward flock.
At the heart of the film is the theme of forgiveness. Embracing of forgiveness at the cost of something so dear to oneself. At one point Father Leary says of the historic sex crimes in the church, that it is ‘time to forgive and forget’. But as Gleeson’s Father James says to his mentally ill daughter (he was widowed before taking holy orders) memories don’t fade. Thus there can be no such thing as forgive and forget. Real forgiveness is looking the person in the eye, holding the crime forever in memory, and stepping forward to forgive.
Forgiveness is not absolution. It is not relieving the transgressor of their responsibility. It is the moving forth through life with the memory of past injustices in the mind, and the refusal to be suffocated by them. That is the one thing the sufferer of childhood sexual abuse cannot do, and through the denial of forgiveness, he goes from victim to transgressor.
So we look him in the eye, hold his gaze through our tears, and forgive him.