‘Calvary’ Exclusive: The High Risks of Pursuing a Vocation
"I'm going to kill you Father. … I'm going to kill you 'cause you're innocent. … There's no point in killing a bad priest, but killing a good one, that'd be a shock."
With this confession, the superb new film Calvary opens, introducing viewers to a wry, funny, upstanding priest whose vocation could cost him his life—not through any fault of his own, but because his institution has failed so miserably in its duty to both God and humanity.
It's a late life vocational calling for Father James Lavelle, the film's star, Brendan Gleeson, told an audience at a July screening in Washington, DC, where The High Calling was in attendance.
"When he makes the decision, he's unashamed of his commitment to it … He wants to be a very particular figure, representing a type of kindness and goodness more than anything else, but obviously that means he's wearing the uniform that has been besmirched by all the scandals and the cover-ups. … It's nailing his colors to the mast," said Gleeson.
Emblematic of that stance is the priest's traditional garb. Gleeson said putting on the soutane felt like putting on a suit of armor in the battle of good and evil and it reminded him of a simpler time, in his childhood, a time when distinctions between those forces were easier to identify.
Once Father Lavelle receives notice that he'll be murdered, it becomes clear he has some decisions to make. One of them involves his daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), who is emotionally fragile and will be irreparably harmed by his death.
Kelly Reilly as “Fiona” and Brendan Gleeson as “Father James Lavelle in CALVARY.
Fiona tells her father she felt abandoned by him when he entered the priesthood after her mother died.
"I have a vocation; I wasn't trying to escape," he says.
"The fact remains that first Mom went away, then you went away," she replies.
There is a cost to vocational calling, not just to the called, but also, and perhaps more so, to their loved ones. This applies to vocational callings to serve in the structure of the institutional church as Christians have traditionally understood the notion, but it also applies to any vocation in which a person is serving others and serving God.
In a one-on-one interview with Gleeson and the film's writer/director John Michael McDonagh, The High Calling asked about the moral dilemma of having to choose between one's child and one's calling.
McDonagh said that although the daughter appears fragile at first, she reveals herself to be "quite strong" by the film's end. She has absorbed her father's values and will carry them into a very different world from the one he has known, regardless of what happens to him.
There's a scene in which father and daughter ask forgiveness of each other. Gleeson said it's possible that in this scene, his character is asking forgiveness for what he is about to risk in his dealings with the would-be killer.
"But it wasn't only risk," he said. "In having conversations about the impulse to go and face [the enemy] down was the notion, 'Well, was that a form of suicide? Is he going to a death?'"
Gleeson compared this risk to that taken by the unnamed man who stood up to a tank in the 1989 Tiananmen Square, China, protests.
"He confronted something that was dangerous, not because he had a death wish, but because he wished to stop something appalling happening. And I think, Father Lavelle … takes the risk of disaster because he believes … that he can convince the killer that all is not lost, that he is not lost. …. He believes that that is his duty to do, on behalf of himself, but also on behalf of his institution. In terms of pinning his colors to the mast, in terms of hope and belief and faith in humanity, he does take a gamble on that," said Gleeson.
"So, it's about all faith involving risk?" The High Calling asked.
"Yes, totally. That is the gift," said Gleeson.
"You never know how it's going to go. It could turn out for the better. It could turn out for the worse," said McDonagh.
"And you need to stand up sometimes and not bow down in fear," added Gleeson.
Lavelle is contrasted in the film with an ineffectual priest, Father Timothy Leary (David Wilmot). In what is, for my money, the funniest scene in this darkly humorous film, Lavelle, drunk with despair, confronts Leary.
"Why are you a [expletive] priest at all? You should be a [expletive] accountant in an insurance firm," he says.
When Leary later asks Lavelle why he hates him, Lavelle replies, "I don't hate you at all. It's just you have no integrity. That's the worst thing I could say about anybody."
Yes, I think it is. And, the unabashed humanity of this clergyman in communicating that point and others is part of what makes him such an inspiring person of faith.
"The reason he's so appalling, that priest, is not because he's a bad man. It's because he is cheapening everything," Gleeson told The High Calling.
McDonagh is not denigrating the work of accountants or insurance firms in this scene; he's affirming our collective disgust with the collapse of corporate and individual ethics in so many societal institutions. It's not only the Catholic Church at which he takes aim. It's business. It’s family. It's community. It's modernity.
Brendan Gleeson as “Father James” and David McSavage as “Bishop Montgomery” in CALVARY.
In another scene, someone says to Lavelle, "Your kind is gone and you don't even realize it."
"My kind will never be gone," Lavelle replies.
"Like every cynic, [the villagers] want to be shown in the end that there is actually a future. … They really try as much as they can to break this man, but they're hoping against hope he doesn't break," Gleeson told the screening audience.
Calvary is not only a superbly written and acted film; it is also a theologically sophisticated one that deals honestly and thoroughly with questions of suffering, faith, hope, love, forgiveness, and loyalty in addition to vocation. Both its writer and star were raised in the Irish Catholic Church. McDonagh told The High Calling he believes in "something above and beyond us."
"As a filmmaker, the intention … was to make a movie that somebody that has deeply held religious beliefs will get something out of … and somebody who's an atheist will get something out of," he said. Among his influences in making the film were Ingmar Bergman and John-Pierre Melville.
Gleeson said he isn't publicly discussing his own faith, or lack thereof, because he wants viewers to engage with Father Lavelle "on his own terms."
And so, we're left with Father Lavelle, a man whose work matters. It matters to his community—the corrupt, spiritually empty banker; the neglected, bored wife having multiple affairs; the agnostic country doctor who asks the hard questions; the would-be killer. It matters to Fiona, who must forgive him for its cost to her. It matters if the institution to which he is committed is to survive. The outcome of the killer's threat reveals just how much one man’s work matters.
Your Work Matters
What if your work is drudgery? What if getting out of bed to head to your daily grind is just about to push you over the edge? What if Monday morning always arrives with a feeling a dread? We all want to feel as if the work we're doing is meaningful. We want it to fill us up, and we pray it makes a difference in the world for good. But what if you're stuck in a job that has nothing to do with what you feel called to do? What if you feel trapped and discouraged? In this series, Your Work Matters, we'll be asking some of these same questions. We don't promise to have all (or any) of the answers, but we encourage you to wrestle with these tough and painful issues, right along with us. Tell us your story. Offer your wisdom, and come away encouraged that you are not alone, and that God sees you, right where you are.
Featured image of Director John Michael McDonagh and Brendan Gleeson on the set of CALVARY.
All images associated with this article are credited to Fox Searchlight: Pressroom.