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Calvary: A religious movie for atheists

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Following Darren Aronofsky’s confused Noah, John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary strikes miraculous middle ground for a religious movie.

I’m an atheist, though I’m loathe to use the word – referring to myself as an ‘atheist’ seems like an admission that there’s a god I’m choosing to ignore, that I’m some hipster who thinks a refusal to believe will go nicely with my vinyl collection and ill-advised ‘body art’. ‘Atheist’ derives from the Greek word ‘atheos’, or ‘godless’, which makes people like me sound like chicken-killing heathens rather than what we are: people who believe in what’s apparent rather than what’s not, who believe that humankind created God – the same way it created now-unfashionable deities like Bacchus or Wotan – and not the other way around. But, for the sake of brevity, I suppose I’m an atheist.

As an atheist, I’ve struggled with religious movies. I could never relate in the way that anybody can relate to, say, love stories

As a result, I’ve always struggled with religious movies. It’s one of the very few sub-genres that can come across as eminently alien to people like me. Scorsese has always been one of my favourite filmmakers, but his religious symbolism, and especially the Catholic guilt felt by some of his lead characters, never made much sense to me. The meaning was lost, because I couldn’t relate in the way that anybody can relate to love stories, for example. And films more overtly about faith, like Scorsese’s own The Last Temptation of Christ, I outright don’t understand.

Darren Aronofsky’s recently released Noah, so eccentric a movie it might as well have just been called ‘What?!’, is only the first of what is apparently going to be a series of biblical blockbusters coming out of Hollywood. And if the Old Testament story of Noah wasn’t unbelievable enough to someone like me, Aronofsky’s Noah has such uncertain footing between appealing to those with faith and those without that it just comes across as some bizarre, confounding fantasy. I’m not too familiar with the story of Noah, but I’m almost positive scripture doesn’t state that Noah and a gang of angelic stone monsters went to war with an army of bloodthirsty, cockney pirate-people.

Hear more on Noah: It’s our take on the religious epic in the SR Filmcast


One standout scene in Noah sees the titular prophet tell the creationist story of how the Earth came to be, while Aronofsky simultaneously shows us images of a more scientifically verifiable history of our world, complete with the obligatory tadpole-to-monkey-to-person evolutionary steps. The director appears cautious to offend either Christians or The Godless Ones with his movie, but by offering two strongly opposing theories side-by-side, he ends up pleasing nobody. It makes the film an irrelevance – Aronofsky’s movie highlights the harshness of religious dogma (if you’re a fan of infanticide, you’ll love Noah) at the same time as it panders to the neutral blockbuster crowd, through ludicrous battle sequences and vapid romantic subplots.

John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary confirms to infidels like me that religion really does have a place in the modern world

John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, on the other hand, is very different. This existential mystery, about a good Catholic priest threatened with murder in the confession box, respects the opinions of non-believers but firmly, quietly, retains its own Christian beliefs. It wholly recognises the age we live in, where people indifferent and even hateful towards the church brush shoulders with clergymen and their rapidly diminishing congregations. It gets that the world is losing faith. And yet, somewhat miraculously, Calvary confirms to infidels like me that religion really does have a place in the modern world.

Ostensibly a black comedy, Calvary is more often frightening than funny. Father Lavelle (a superb Brendan Gleeson) visits a former pupil-turned-cannibalistic serial killer (played to creepy effect by Gleeson’s real-life progeny, Domhnall) in prison, and asks what human flesh tastes like; he replies, icily, and with sickening relatability, “like pheasant – it’s very gamey.” Later, the local doctor, in the form of old-reliable Aidan Gillen, relays the story of a procedure gone wrong, in which a young boy was put under a mishandled dose of anaesthetic for a routine operation and subsequently woke up “blind, deaf, dumb and paralysed.”

calvary domhnall gleeson

In the horror of a world like that – our world – Calvary doesn’t treat some unseen force, one which it accepts not everyone can relate to, as the saviour. Instead, it is the good man at the heart of this wicked tale, a man driven by a moral code, who acts as the ultimate hero. Calvary makes the argument that the modern church lives not in the service of God, but in the service of people, and it’s a film that might even make sense of religion for atheists.

I’ve not become born again after watching Calvary, but McDonagh’s film succeeds where Noah didn’t because it tolerates both believers and non-believers equally, and isn’t as violently opposed one way or the other, in the way that, say, The Passion of the Christ was strictly for and PTA’s cynical There Will Be Blood was vehemently against. It takes a long-overdue stand against loud, unglamorous media reports and counters that not all of religion is corrupted. Calvary is a stunning film, not least because it convincingly argues that there are still good people of faith out there, as it successfully speaks to both the religious and non-religious alike.


More from film: How Hollywood can break the sequel ‘curse’


Featured image: Entertainment One

Inset images: Paramount; Entertainment One


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