Tim Cawkwell's Cinema

Intelligible writing on intelligent film

The Way to Calvary

To watch the new Irish film Calvary is to be reminded instantly of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, yet a second thought quickly obtrudes: Bresson would never have filmed the opening scene in the confessional in the way that the director of Calvary, John Michael McDonagh, does it: the camera holds on the priest’s face which reacts with character and expressiveness to the threat to kill him. The Bresson version would be of an impassive face, barely registering the words he hears, and the shot would be much shorter. 


McDonagh’s way of doing it is far from being wrong for it is very effective: if the priest is shaken to the core, he does not show it, which allows us to feel it on his behalf. McDonagh has explicitly said that he has drawn on Bresson’s film (for “the transcendental style”) but he seems to me to have drawn more on the novel of ‘Diary of a Country Priest’ by Georges Bernanos than on the film. McDonagh surely echoes in Calvary Bernanos’ portrait of the priest whom the waves beat but cannot erode, a priest for whom the pastoral role pitches him into a frontline struggle with a sinful humanity. As if to confirm the point, one of the characters drops the name of Bernanos into the conversation, a knowingly reflexive reference once beloved of the Nouvelle Vague directors. Only this is not urbane Paris but rural Sligo on the west coast of Ireland: we can all drop Bernanos’ name if we want (we don’t on the whole) but doing so in rural Sligo is another thing altogether.


External referencing like this has a distancing effect (and is very unBressonian) but it is not the only trick to do so. Putting the film squarely in the 21st-century globalized economy is the regular puffs it gives to Sligo beaches as a place to come surfing, although this is never done in a jarring way. Of more moment is the distanciation - or 'estrangement' if you prefer, the device that makes the spectator take a mental step backward - created by the exotic nature of the film’s characters, exotic to Sligo that is. On the whole they are a perfectly natural fit on a Dublin street, but the misery in their lives is far from the rural miserabilism you find in Bresson’s other film of a Bernanos novel, Mouchette (and indeed the film made just prior to that, Au Hasard Balthasar). As for Father James himself, I am not familiar enough with the milieu to know whether such men are two-a-penny in rural Ireland. I suspect not, any more than rural France in 1950 (when Bresson filmed Diary of a Country Priest) was peopled with ‘barefoot choristers’ like Claude Laydu in that film. However it is true that Brendan Gleeson inhabits his soutane in Calvary as bulkily and as convincingly as Depardieu does in another great film from a Bernanos novel, Maurice Pialat’s Under Satan’s Sun (1987), and conveys an attractive Irishness, knowledgeable about the world, willing to take his time and properly pastoral. He does have a dark night of the soul too, like Bernanos’/Bresson’s priest. One thing though, he never mentions God, and we only see him once on his knees.


One plot point: does Father James know who it is that issues the threat to kill him? If not, that makes sense of him seeking advice from his bishop (I think it’s a bishop) and of him going to the police. But he surely does know who it is: it’s a small parish and voices are very distinctive, so he surely does recognize who it is, and yet when he encounters the person later, he avoids asking the question (obvious to me, anyway), ‘By the way, was that you in the confessional the other day?’ I don’t know whether this unresolved point detracts from the film, adds to its intriguing quality, or is a deliberately sophisticated tease by the film’s makers.


The film therefore has this unrealistic feel to it, another way of separating it from Bresson, but it is a compelling and original version of the detective story which turns the audience, not the priest, into the detective trying to pin down the priest’s potential killer. This gives it a proper suspense and a climax to grip you. What is more it is an intelligent and original way to get to grips with the paedophile scandals that have gripped the Catholic church.


One final point: I don’t think it gives anything away to say that the ending does encroach unequivocally on Bressonian territory.


© Tim Cawkwell 2014