When it was released last August, the movie “Calvary” drew attention for directly tackling the issue of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. Starring popular Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, who has built a career out of making unlikeable men likable in movies like “The Guard” and “In Bruges,” the movie broke the mold.
Rather than spotlighting those who sexually abuse, “Calvary” demonstrates how good priests suffer for the sins of others.
Gleeson plays Father James, a small-town priest who, in the film’s opening, hears a disturbing confession. The unseen man says priests abused him as a child. Years later, the man wishes he could kill the priests involved as revenge for ruining his life, but they have all died or disappeared. Instead, he says, he will kill Father James.
He tells Father James that he has a week to live so he should get his affairs in order. Then the man disappears, leaving Father James seven days to wrestle over whether to sacrifice himself for the sins of the other priests, whether to run, or whether to take a stand and refuse to go down for their crimes.
After a successful run in a few hundred
theaters, “Calvary” made its debut on DVD and Blu-Ray on Dec. 9. Gleeson took a few minutes to share with The Tidings his thoughts on the movie and the issue of priestly abuse — and how his often dark journey making the film affected his own faith.
Q: Was there a lot of pressure on how to handle this subject matter?
BG: Yeah, it was obviously a subject fraught with trauma, intensity, pain and anguish. It goes to the heart of everything, I suppose in one way, in the sense that if you can’t protect your children, where do you start? I talked with [writer-director John Michael McDonagh] about it, going at it from the perspective of a good man, which allows us to ask the questions from a man who absorbs the pain in his ear and responds to it without it letting it go into a vacuum. It was difficult, but I felt John was very fair in the way he dealt with it. He didn’t become didactic in any way. He held up a flag for compassion and the better side of human nature.
Q: Father James is kind of the flip-side of Gerry Boyle, the corrupt small-town policeman you played in another McDonagh film, “The Guard.”
BG: I think Gerry Boyle hid his heart under a rock somewhere and kept it protected at all times, whereas Father James opens his heart to absorb what pain and attack is coming his way. In the end, Gerry Doyle had his own moral sense and values but had to dig quite deeply to get there. He was a very lonely man. Father James is different, he purposely lowers his own defenses, and that’s a huge gesture. He poses the question to himself: If people go into despair, where does it lead them and how does it help?
Q: This movie really addresses something we haven’t seen before: the frustrations of good priests having to deal with the hatred and judgment caused by the actions of bad ones.
BG: I think it’s partially true, but there is a kind of guilt that is legitimate, though. If you join an army and wear the uniform, you have to take some responsibility for the actions of that. He understands he has a case to answer by nature of his cloth. It’s not just the pedophile priests, but that it was covered up by his church in a way that it was a fundamental challenge.
He has to answer that too in terms of taking his place in that order. It isn’t that there’s just a few bad apples, it’s that the bad apples were allowed to maintain and spread their poison. The consequences of abuse last through life. The compassion he shows towards the man himself shows how awful and what a lifelong curse this abuse has been. It was good to have a good man. He’s bound to question his own belief if he’s honest.
[The priest’s] superior isn’t particularly helpful and his main priority seems to dodge and keep accusations away at arm’s length. It’s been great and would have been easy to take a bad priest and make a film about him. It’s far better to take the reality that a good priest has to answer for the abuses perpetrated.
What’s essential is he tries to make atonement for some of that, and tries to re-instill hope and compassion in the people abused and the people who have given into despair and cynicism. All cynics want to break idealists because it justifies their cynicism. But I think they really don’t want this man to collapse, and they hope he’ll restore the faith in them.