At the beginning of Calvary, Father James (Brendan Gleeson, best known as Alastar “Mad Eye” Moody in the Harry Potter films) is told in confession that he will be murdered in one week because of the sins of another priest.
I’m going to kill you, Father. I’m going to kill you ’cause you’ve done nothing wrong. I’m going to kill you because you’re innocent. Not right now, though. I’ll give you enough time to put your house in order. Make your peace with God. Sunday week, let’s say. I’ll meet you down by the beach, down by the water there. Killing a priest on a Sunday! That’ll be a good one.
We don’t see who is making this threat, we only see the expressive face of the priest hearing the “confession”. The rest of the film follows Father James through his week as he deals with his regular parishioners’ troubles, as well as the threat against his own life. It is a week where Father James’ faith is buffeted from all sides, and we get the distinct feeling that it’s not an unusual week for the priest.
Calvary was made by English-born Irish filmmaker John Michael McDonagh, and although McDonagh makes no public profession of Christian faith, he has made a serious faith-based film. This is even more compelling when you find out that far from being a “faith-based filmmaker”, McDonagh sees himself as an anarchist, and he regards Calvary as an anti-institutional film. “Why listen to any institutions at all?” McDonagh asks rhetorically in one interview.
And yet, McDonagh’s film has the potential to resonate deeply with the faithful. Calvary is not afraid to wrestle with serious questions of the Christian faith, as seen through the prism of the life of this small-town parish priest, and the dysfunctional small town in which he ministers. Among things, Father James is struggling to be an authentic follower of Christ while dealing with issues of abuse, racism, adultery, homosexuality, suicide, alcoholism, corruption, depression, and murder. These are tough issues that are difficult to examine one at a time, let alone all bunched together in one film, and yet there they are in Calvary.
And why shouldn’t they be? These are issues that lurk under the surface of just about any church of any denomination at any given time. They are issues that make us squirm. They are issues that aren’t pleasant to behold. They are issues we don’t feel comfortable watching and hearing about and thinking about and dealing with.
But they are real life issues.
Of course, this raises the question in my mind: why aren’t American filmmakers of faith – the ones making Son of God, God’s Not Dead, Fireproof, Persecuted, Left Behind – dealing with these issues as openly, as plainly, as authentically, as this little sleeper film from Ireland made by the anarchist filmmaker?
In her article, 8 Things ‘Christian’ Filmmakers Can Learn From ‘Calvary‘, Patheos film critic and editor Rebecca Cusey makes a statement that believers need to hear loud and clear. All eight points are important, but I want to focus on her fifth point, “Faith Friendly and Family Friendly Are Not The Same Thing”, where Cusey writes:
If your main goal is to make a PG rated film with no boobs or f-bombs, you’ll miss great human stories, including many of the ones in the Bible. Make great kids’ movies for kids, but make great grown up movies for adults. “Calvary” is rated R for language, brief violence, and adult themes, but isn’t salacious or graphic.
When I first read Cusey’s words, having not seen Calvary, it was as though a light turned on in a quite dark room. The question immediately rose in my mind – when exactly did faith-based and family-friendly become synonymous?
Think of all the so-called “faith-based” films that have been released in the past few years… can you think of any that were embraced by the church that were not also made for the whole family? Conversely, think of all the films that profoundly presented or illustrated Scriptural truths that were far from family-oriented films (The Shawshank Redemption, Unforgiven, Calvary, to name a few). None of these were made by filmmakers known for their faith.
Suddenly it all becomes clear, doesn’t it?
Christian filmmakers have been locked into the single viewpoint that faith-based = family friendly, and it has made their job of developing solidly powerful Christian films extremely difficult. Being handcuffed to maintaining a PG rating takes away an enormous amount of material that Christians in filmmaking could potentially mine to tell more authentically human stories.
Think about the darkness and depravity of sinful humanity explored in the Bible – the disobedience of Adam and Eve, Cain’s murder of Abel, the wickedness of humanity in the time of Noah, Abraham lying to the Pharoah about Sarah being his wife, David sleeping with another man’s wife and then having the man killed to cover it up, and on and on and on and on and on. The Bible doesn’t shy away from showing the darkness of humanity, and yet for some reason, we do!
Now, let me back up for one moment and say that I get it. I really do. As a father of three children, I certainly appreciate a well-made family-appropriate film, and I also want my kids to watch films that build them up in their faith. I also realize that it isn’t pleasant or easy to portray darkness, and the last thing that an artist of faith wants to do is glorify darkness, and that ultimately, an artist of faith wants their art to point people to the light.
But what we seem to be missing is this: doesn’t light shine that much brighter in a dark room?
Please understand, I am not shouting, “All Christian films must be dark and disturbing!” In fact, if anyone wants to produce my novel, Thimblerig’s Ark, it could definitely be a fantastic faith-based animated feature that would be great for the entire family. I’m certainly in favor of these sorts of films (especially if my name is in the credits).
What I am shouting is the thing that I keep returning to over and over in what has become a growing collection of essays on Christian filmmaking: that we – the ones paying to watch these films, the ones in the 21st century American Christian subculture – we, the church – must give our filmmakers our blessing to make the films they are called to make, even if it occasionally disrupts our sensibilities, makes us uncomfortable, and stretches our sensibilities.
We – the church – must support them in making films that we would never take our kids to see, but films that are important, films that matter, films that explore the desperate human condition and that impact and effect the society at large.
And we – the church – must break the impenetrable bond that has been built connecting family films and faith-based films – a bond that has frankly meant that we have trouble making either kind of film well.
Finally, we – the church – need to see the value of telling truthful films – films that are even painfully truthful – and we must release and support our artists to be able to tell them.
Then amazing things could potentially happen, and we might even be able to make better faith-based films than the non-faith-based anarchist British/Irish filmmakers.
Wouldn’t that be something?
Click here to read my original post, “What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking.”
My faith-based film reviews…