A Review of ‘Calvary’: Absurdism Meets Dogma

John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary is a clash of postmodern cynicism and Catholic dogma. It confronts the distrust that has arisen from the child abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church. In many ways, this film deserves credit for dealing quite seriously with religious issues, and for portraying a very admirable Christian character (a clergyman non-the-less!). This predominately Catholic film merits the attention of Catholics and Protestants alike.

A review from Glenn Kenny seems on point in categorizing this film as an absurdist allegory. He draws our attention to the opening quote of the movie, “Despair not, one of the thieves was spared; presume not, one of the thieves was not.” I’m thankful for Kenny for pointing out that this quote also found in Beckett’s playwright, Waiting for Godot.

Beckett’s play (which has also been adapted into more than one film rendition) is one of brilliant meaninglessness. It captures the current of postmodern distress that is characteristic of our time. For those unfamiliar with Postmodernism, its name indicates its meaning: it post-dates Modernism. Modernism was a time of philosophical optimism. Modernist thinkers had great hopes in man’s ability to rise to utopian heights through rationalistic excellence. We live in the wake of a cynicism toward such hopes. It is a cynicism that sees the unsearchable complexities of truth, one that embraces plurality. Calvary is an excellent case of such Postmodernism colliding with Roman Catholic doctrine.

Why this film is important:

This film makes some important strides. For one, it is grappling with the complexity of human nature. While each character does almost reaches the level of caricature, human nature is treated with purposeful complexity. Redemption confronts blatant sinners, and the films saint has his share of demons. Such complexity is certainly in line with any serious reading of the Apostle Paul. Romans 6-8 draws a line between those in the flesh and those in the Spirit, not by the presence or absence of sin, but by the essential nature of the person, found in union with Christ, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Human nature is multilayered, and the battle with sin does not stop with belief.

This brings about another strength of this film; it demonstrates the radical tension of the gospel. While the film never captures Father James absolving anyone of there sins (a tension the film seems to purposefully maintain), the closest thing to a genuine confession comes from a serial killer that Father James visits in prison. Later, the police chief mockingly asks Father James whether the man’s actions don’t matter because Jesus forgives him. Father James frankly replies, “Something like that.” In another scene, Father James tells his daughter that he thinks we focus too much on sin and not enough on virtue, especially the virtue of forgiveness.

Why it is Troublesome:

As a Protestant, it is probably predictable that I see part of the problem to be that the themes are conterminous with Roman Catholic dogma. I think that Abraham Kuyper’s critic of Roman Catholicism still has some relevance for today, and is indicative of what the church still suffer from. I will quote him in full:

Under the hierarchy of Rome the Church and the World were placed over against each other, the one as being sanctified and the other as being still under the curse. Everything outside the Church was under the influence of demons, and exorcism banished the this demoniacal power from everything that came under the protection, influence and inspiration of the Church. Hence in a Christian country the entire social life was to be covered by the wings of the Church…As a natural result the world corrupted the Church, and by its dominion over the world the Church proved an obstacle to every free development of its life. (Lectures on Calvinism, 29)

The Roman Church has attempted such dominion over the world that it still seems to suffer from the lack of distinction between church and world that Protestantism has consistently maintained. The great distinction seems to be the doctrine of regeneration. A primary distinction between Roman Catholic and Protestant doctrine is that Protestantism has consistently recognized that the Church, as least in principle, consists of regenerate individuals, new creations in Christ. Such regeneration is both positional and effectual on the persons nature, not the product of participation in the sacraments. In contrast, Calvary portrays a situation in which sacraments and pastoral care are administered to people who have no desire to serve the Lord. In Protestant thought, these people would not be included in the Church. Pastoral ministry to such would be evangelism.

The other problem with this film is that its absurdism is absolute. There is a way to portray sin as a foil, in order to place it in a redemptive context. This film finds little obvious redemption. The redemption is left to the viewer, who is dangling in existential tension. Such a tension is common in contemporary thought about religion. In my experience, religious conversations these days typically conclude with something either like

“None of us can really know though”

or

“to each his own.”

This film ends with such tension. Its a plunge into darkness with only whispers of light. It has no answers, only questions. This is common of art nowadays. Questions are noble, answers are simplistic.

It doesn’t help that most Christian art nowadays does limit itself to simplistic, and often cliche, answers.

It seems that the burden of Christian art nowadays is to boldly address these existential tension of Postmodern thought, with intelligent, artistic, and redemptive responses.

Caveat: This film is quite dark. I was excited to watch it, but now I’m not sure I’m glad that I did. I probably wont watch it again. Viewers should consider its content before watching it. This includes graphic sexual language, frequent profanity, weighty religious issues, drug use, and one scene of gratuitous violence.

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