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The Virtue of Self-Sacrifice

The Virtue of Self-Sacrifice

By Drew Trotter


“Self–sacrifice? But it is precisely the self that cannot and must not be sacrificed.”

Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead


My favorite film from last year was an independent movie, written and directed by John Michael McDonagh entitled Calvary. It is not an easy movie to watch; almost every character is burdened with deep personal problems, which have made them angry, bitter and cynical toward life in general and the church in particular. I say almost every character because—in a counter-cultural twist that is mind-boggling for me—the target of most of the barbs is a wonderful, decent priest, trying to make his own way, as he serves the very people who verbally spit at him on regular occasions.

The astounding Brendan Gleeson, one of the producers of the movie, plays the priest, Father James Lavelle, brilliantly. Gleeson and his friend, the playwright John Michael McDonagh, developed this story and its central question: What does it mean to forgive? The power of forgiveness and the extent to which we may sometimes be pressed to give it has rarely been so movingly articulated on screen.

The townspeople are portrayed through superb performances, too, each actor playing an oddball with serious moral deficiencies. There is a police chief, who has a gay lover and who points guns at people for fun, a suicidal daughter with attitude, a wealthy retired investment banker who cynically pees on a priceless painting he owns, a butcher who is perfectly happy to let his wife’s adultery continue because he is glad to be rid of her, and on and on and on.

The two things all of these characters have in common are a shared community in the town and the personal and social nastiness they seem driven to practice toward the priest. In almost every interaction in the film they chide him for his beliefs, his morals, his church. The only respite provided from this onslaught of cynicism comes on occasion from the priest’s daughter (he is a widower who has answered the call late in life) and from a visitor who has been in a car accident and is a faithful Catholic believer. The village and its inhabitants, though, comprise a world of depression, sin and rebellion against the gospel, and Father Lavelle goes into that world (and stays) to minister healing in whatever small ways he can.

The townspeople are in need of his healing, but none of them seeks it. The police chief mocks the priest with his lifestyle and his belief in power. The daughter loves him but resists his attempts to get her to talk about her suicide attempt, and in a remarkable scene, when he is sitting in the confessional and she in the place of the penitent, mocks Christ by calling Him suicidal. The cynical investment banker cannot let go of deriding the church for being so greedy, and scoffs at the priest for being part of a corrupt institution. The butcher, his wife and her lover all tell the priest to get lost, when he tries to help the three of them because the love-making has turned violent (she’s been beaten up, though that is not shown on screen).

What does the priest do in all these situations? Like Jesus, it seems to me, he continues to love and serve the people of the town, regardless. His manner is almost always non-judgmental, while never accepting of their behavior. When attacked, he never raises his voice until very late in the film, when circumstances almost require it, and, when no one could be blamed for doing so. The only one for whom he really has harsh, condemnatory words is his fellow priest, again like Jesus with the Pharisees. The movie is a study in the responsibility of all of us to treat those who despise us with love and prayer (Matthew 5:43-46). He takes the pain and the suffering of these broken souls, and he internalizes it, not without some suffering of his own, since he is human after all.

But when his church is burned down, when his dog is slaughtered mercilessly, and when his own life is threatened, he responds by remaining faithful to his tasks of tending the flock, whether it be in the church, at their places of work, in their homes or in the pub. He pays dearly for his love. Though he has been personally self-sacrificial throughout the film, he is willing to die, if it takes that, to help his wounded sheep.

Calvary may not be a perfect film, but it is at worst a study of a character so worth emulating that the movie ought to be high on everyone’s list to watch and discuss. Unfortunately, too much of the meaning of the film seems to be lodged in a thinly veiled religious humanism. The priest says his rote prayers on a regular basis, but one never sees him struggling in prayer before the Father in any kind of intimate way. I could be argued out of that opinion, though, since Father Lavelle is seen so often praying before a crucifix, and the chief element in the marketing of the film is an empty cross. He certainly seeks the counsel of his bishop, though the bishop is not much help, and in his talks about his calling with his daughter, he seems motivated by more than just wanting to do good. I’ll leave you to see it, evaluate the striking image at the very end of the movie, and meditate on how one should understand the picture theologically. What is without question is the value of this movie for understanding what it means to forgive.


More about Calvary, including portals to reviews and video interviews with principals in the making of the film, can be found here online.


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