the conversation: some thoughts on “Calvary” (2013)


There’s been a lot of jaw-wagging over the past two centuries about Authority. What is it, where does it come from, why should we follow it, what should it do. Once it was thrown out in the open that there are no natural authorities, that, as one of my mentors once said, “the world doesn’t give us an ‘Ought’,” the conversation kind of fell apart into camps of people that don’t talk to each other. But perhaps that’s the way it’s always been.

Some, the Utilitarians, thought they could turn things into an equation.  Greatest good for the greatest number.  We all know what that leads to- make a few suffer spectacularly to shore up the bland creature-comforts of the masses (the most mechanistic and modern answer, ironically just a mirror image of Christianity). Others, waving the flag of democracy, said ask the masses themselves what they want- they know best, and can tell us with their votes.  Well, it’s all too clear that they can’t. They vote away their own authority every chance they get.  The conservatives thought everyone should keep the faith, or rather that we should keep it while they, clever and beneficent initiates, prop up the whole farce from behind the scenes, lest all hell break loose.  But they never fail to show themselves unworthy to the throne they hide behind, and upset stable conditions just as often as they preserve them.

Some people tried to turn Darwin into their god, and said that Nature mandates the survival of the fittest.  It mandates no such thing, as they would have known had they actually read his book.  Sometimes the strongest, smartest, and most ambitious survive, but just as often conditions favor the the timid, the unexceptional, and the parasitic. There’s a good deal of randomness tossed in, and ‘Nature,’ whoever that is, really doesn’t voice an opinion on any of it. Nature is silent.  Though it can sound, at different times, like a void or a busy, cacophonous chaos.

Nietzsche said god is dead, and he didn’t just mean that bearded voyeur in the clouds.  Any one pursuit or value or interest you try to put up on that pedestal and make your personal god- Nietzsche is there to mock it.  It all comes down to personal choice, really.  It’s all on you.  There’s no reason to do anything you do, except that it’s what you chose.  Which is just as absurdly circular as it sounds.

And if you choose to be a priest, that’s on you too.  And in these dark times, you’re placing a target on your back.  That’s what good-naturedly acerbic widower-turned-priest Father James finds out in “Calvary,” a film baked to perfection from equal parts drama and black humor.  You may recognize the actor, Brendan Gleeson,  from his role in 2008’s “In Bruges” as the reluctant assassin sent to kill Colin Farrell.

In Father James’s small town parish, something is rotten.  In fact, everything is rotten, it seems, but Father James.  A cast of locals includes such delightfuls as the atheist doctor, the promiscuous foreigner, the bitter gigolo, the battered adulteress, the antisocial young male, the jaded high-finance bachelor, the suicidal curmudgeon, and the emotionally adrift daughter.

Why should we do what we do?  Why should we do anything? Nobody can say for sure, least of all Father James, who has his own doubts and demons.  But he’s there to listen. And when the priest unlocks his own word-hoard, he has some interesting things to say. As long as the words flow both ways, there is hope.