Absurd Absolution

Calvary, John Michael McDonagh, 2014

“I think there’s too much talk about sins to be honest, and not enough about virtues.”

McDonagh’s Calvary opens with small town Catholic priest Fr. James (Brendan Gleeson) sitting down to take confession from an anonymous parishioner.

The disembodied voice through the lattice recounts how he was failed by the church and was a victim of abuse in the hands of a priest in his youth. He is not looking for absolution for any transgressions, but retribution.

He announces to Fr. James that, instead of taking revenge on the priest that abused him (whom no-one would really care about), he will cleanse his sufferings through murdering a man that is well-respected; Fr. James himself. He gives the priest a week to set his affairs in order.

And thus is set in motion a strange backwards murder mystery, where the whodunit becomes more of a whowilldoit. As each of the characters of the town slowly reveal their adrift moralities and insecurities, more possible murderers put themselves in the frame. As such, the film could have played out as an interesting crime thriller, allowing the protagonistic priest to take the role of amateur sleuth. McDonagh however takes a different tack.

Brendan Gleeson as Father James

Brendan Gleeson as Father James

Fr. James himself claims to know immediately who has made the threat. He is not attempting to solve the mystery. There is, however a deeper mystery at the heart of the film. The great existential mystery; how is one to be?

During the Second World War, French existentialist Albert Camus was attempting to solve the very same puzzle. In the face of the cruelness of the uncaring universe, how are we to perceive ourselves as important? To Camus, this was the great dilemma facing us as humans. We attribute value to our lives, yet can see no inherent meaning. This is the paradox of the Absurd.

The characters in McDonagh’s world are plagued with misery, trapped between a godless reality and their own desires for psychological balance. Many of them have renounced religion, yet still rely upon Fr. James as counsel and comforter.

Atheist doctor Frank Harte (Aiden Gillen) proudly and arrogantly declares that he doesn’t need God, yet still ends the film unsure and insecure, pensively stubbing out a cigarette on a disembodied heart, a powerful symbol of extinguishing humanity.

At the core of the film, and indeed of Camus’s philosophy, is the question of how we face our own mortality. Through recognising our own frailties and unimportance, we can better prepare for the certainty of death. Through Fr. James’s own knowledge of the fact that he will die in the week, McDonagh simply highlights the same problem that we all face.

Kelly Reilly as the troubled Fiona

Kelly Reilly as the troubled Fiona

Camus once famously declared that the only real philosophical question is that of suicide. Knowing that the universe does not care about us, surely it is only of our own choosing whether we live or die.

Suicide also rears its head in Calvary. Fr. James’s daughter (just go with it), Fiona, (Kelly Reilly) enters the town with fresh bandages on her arm, a poignant reminder of her choices. Perhaps Fiona is the embodiment of the Camusian heroine. She has moved past her father’s religion, and has taken control of her life away from God.

Yet still she yearns to relinquish that control. As do most of the other characters in the film. And the beast for their burdens? Fr. James. He represents the possibility for virtue and absolution that all the townspeople desire. They want to be forgiven for their transgressions – but not so they can face their maker on judgment day. It is so they can face themselves.

Calvary is a powerful religious allegory wrapped up in an atheistic framework. It highlights the importance of forgiveness and asking for help, but never appeals to that help coming from anywhere other than other humans. It is a humanistic parable, and a secular sermon. It doesn’t get much more absurd than that.

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