Allegory and “Calvary”

What are we supposed to do for a third act revelation?

I am lucky to have a few friends who are suckers for British film and TV as I am. Saturday afternoon, one such friend and I went to our local independent theatre to see Calvary, starring Brendan Gleeson as a Catholic priest threatened by one of his parishioners in a stunning opening scene that he plans to shoot him at the end of the week, not because he is a bad priest, but precisely the opposite. With a small but well-cast ensemble, the film takes on the plot of a murder mystery, but the murder has yet to occur. Like Clue, everyone has the means, motive, and opportunity to want to harm Father James, but who is willing to take those “bad thoughts” and turn them into an actual sin.

At first glance it would seem this Irish town has the world’s smallest parish. There’s Frank the Butcher, Milo the Loner, Veronica the Harlot, Inspector Stanton the Corrupt, the nameless old Writer, Simon the Mechanic (and only person of color), Frank the Doctor, Freddie the Serial Killer, Michael the Tycoon, Brendan the Barkeep, and Míchaél the Altar Boy. In the hospital or the town, there are no extras, we run across no one else even in passing to fill out the town. From each of their particular subject positions these characters bait Father Gleeson, goad him in the worthlessness of his faith, the greed of the church he represents, and the irredeemability of their own souls. And yet, like Christ with the cross on his shoulders (the analogy I assume we are supposed to draw from the title), we are made to see Father James carry the weight of the world and their cynicism on his shoulders.

The baiting is consistent across the ensemble and a core component in the script, so I am led to assume that this was an intentional point of direction. That nail is driven home when, kindly chatting to a young tourist girl who reminds him of his own now-grown daughter, the girl’s father wheels in front of them with his car to nab his daughter as if from a rabid dog. In fact, nearly every man in the down admits at some point to Father James that he had been abused as a young boy at the hands of a priest, and it is the central motivator of the would-be killer. It is this consistency that leads me to believe that we are not mean to understand these figures as actual characters, but rather as allegorical figures, each representing a kind or type of person and ventriloquize that position toward the Catholic church.

Under this model, the film is then a string of scenes of contact between each of these types. Simon the Mechanic is the only person of color in the town, so when Father James confronts him as to whether he knows who is beating up on Veronica, Simon instead takes him to task for the missions and centuries of mistreatment of African peoples. The nameless old writer asks Father James for a gun, not wanting to die alone and in miserable pain for all the good the daily meals James boats over to him every day and company he provides does. Dr. Frank is the token atheist, and he and Father James even share a witty moment about what a tired part that must be to play. It is one of the many meta-dramatic moments that equally signal that this film is not necessarily invested in verisimilitude to make its claims.

The weakness of strict allegorical storytelling is the intensive didacticism it inevitably brings with it. By presenting the concepts or types that are vices for us, we are spectators are inversely being instructed in the virtues we should adopt. It is literally a mode for (and historically favored by) preaching. So like the medieval morality play, Mankind, which includes dueling preachers (as does the film with the perhaps too literally named Father Leary) and opportunities to include the names of actual members of the audience, Calvary tempers its allegory with presentisms. In part produced by the Irish Film Board, the bank failures that have hurt ireland in ways unlike the rest of the UK feature prominently for more than one of the characters. Shots of war in the Middle East and anti-terroist rhetoric peppers the bar scenes, along with passing racism for Romainians, Latinos, and the Black community alike. That, and Ireland’s complex history with Catholicism itself allows you to understand the film as both about the place of religion in the twenty-first century and about what the twenty-first century might look like for Ireland.

It is a difficult film to say the least. It reminds me of Doubt (2008), and I am sure that like that film, I will be with me for some weeks as I process its competing claims. For one, the film is equally critical of the Catholic Church as it is commendatory. It is a position I am uncertain of what to make sense. What I am certain of is the stunning quality of the art direction and of Gleeson’s performance. I am also certain that whatever the films stand on Catholicism specifically, at the heart of the film is a critique of the writ-large cynicism we aim at institutions that, at least at one time, aimed to cultivate integrity in its community. This smallest of parishes certainly lacks this: there is no value in marriage or vows in general, and it is unclear that the parishioner who is threatening his life also burned down the church, because he certainly did not slit the throat of James’ dog. Gleeson’s performance of Father James seems to be most informed by this at least. While himself not free of judgement or failings, he carries with him a personal integrity that he attempts to inspire in his parish. That is how he seems to define his vocation as such, and makes the film worth the trip for meditating on our vices as much as our virtues.


  • CITATION: Calvary. Film. Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh. 2014. Dublin: Irish Film Board et al. USA: Fox Searchlight Pictures.
  • Check out the promo clip for this episode below:

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