Heroic bankers and altruistic politicians are – for obvious recent reasons – rarely to be found as characters in modern culture. And, given the scale of the revelations of the occurrence and covering-up of sexual abuse by priests, you might assume that the same would be true of sincere and celibate Roman Catholic clergy.
Yet, in these bad times for the Vatican, good priests are surprisingly in evidence on-screen. Father James Lavelle, played by Brendan Gleeson in Calvary (released on 11 April), is as unimpeachably true to his vocation as that other high-profile representative of the Catholic priesthood in BBC1’s recent Father Brown, adapted from G K Chesterton’s ecclesiastical detective stories.
As Father Brown is a period piece, set before the paedophile scandals, the ordained investigator is free from suspicion. But, in Calvary, the writer-director John Michael McDonagh employs a deliberate strategy of tempting the audience to think the worst of Gleeson’s character. When Father Lavelle is alone with an altar boy or chats to a young girl in a country lane, we are ready to damn him but his intentions are always innocent.
Admittedly, the character is a compromised compliment to Catholicism. McDonagh’s motivation is more artistic than propagandistic. Such is the reputation of Roman Catholic clergy that a good priest – like a good Nazi in war films – wrong-foots the audience. There is also the advantage of putting clear holy water between his work and that of his brother, Martin McDonagh, whose In Bruges (2008) begins with the botched murder, in a confession box, of a paedophile priest.
In an intriguing variation on that premise, Calvary begins with Lavelle hearing the confession of an unseen parishioner who was once a victim of sexual abuse. The penitent reveals that he will kill the confessor in a week’s time: a good priest slain as a surrogate for all the bad ones, after a period of knowing that his death is preordained, like Christ carrying his cross to Calvary.
By beginning in a confessional, Calvary alludes not only to In Bruges but also to the 1953 film I Confess, by (the lapsed Catholic) Alfred Hitchcock, in which Montgomery Clift suffers the burden of being unable to reveal a murder confessed to him by a penitent. John Cornwell, in his book The Dark Box: a Secret History of Confession, discusses the cinematic uses of what Catholics call the sacrament of absolution but he goes much further than film-makers have – he argues that whispering sins in the dark encouraged sexual abuse, by locking an often sexually frustrated priest in a sort of cupboard with vulnerable young people.
Calvary contains frequent references to the Catholic Church’s child abuse crisis but the film paradoxically approaches the subject through a protagonist who is a perfect advertisement for the clergy and a script that presents faith and forgiveness uncynically as virtues. In this respect, it is representative of the reluctance of cinema and television to tackle directly clerical pederasty.
Popular culture has a good record of dealing with social and political trends before the authorities notice them. Versions of the 9/11 attacks, for example, occurred many times in novels and films (including Tom Clancy’s 1991 thriller The Sum of All Fears) before they became an al-Qaeda plot.
Fictional Catholic priests, however, have tended to be presented as either devil-busters – in the genre spawned by The Exorcist – or sexually as a bigger threat to adult women parishioners than to children. Richard Chamberlain’s Father Ralph de Bricassart, in the devoutly received 1983 miniseries The Thorn Birds, was also a womaniser, while in the 1994 film Priest (written by Jimmy McGovern and directed by Antonia Bird), the central clerics are having sex with a female housekeeper and a consenting adult male.
Even in Doubt (2008), a film made after the extent of sexual depravity by priests became known, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a school chaplain under suspicion of abusing a pupil, the script deliberately leaves open the possibility that the accusations are false. Until Calvary, the most powerful treatment of Catholicism’s shame was in Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education (2004), although, again, the narrative tackles the subject through distancing tactics.
One reason for the relative paucity of fictional responses is that few actors or directors would feel comfortable spending two hours with a character as morally abhorrent as a man committing sex crimes in the name of God. Another is a perhaps surprising level of residual cultural respect for the Church. Given the scale and gravity of the sexual revelations, Catholicism has been treated kindly by mass entertainment, although the portrayal of the Vatican as the baddie in two hugely popular fictional franchises – Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon books and, in the guise of the evil Magisterium, in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – can be attributed to general revulsion at the scandals.
The subject still awaits its defining cinematic treatment: filmgoers might pray for such a movie by Martin Scorsese, a failed candidate for the priesthood. Until then, Calvary gets to the heart of the matter by bypassing it – cleverly and thoughtfully addressing the worst men in the Church by showing one of the best.
Mark Lawson will be writing weekly in the New Statesman