Brendan Gleeson has played many thugs in his career, but at least in his movies with John Michael McDonagh he has started to play self-sacrificing saints … sort of. Gerry Boyle, his character in The Guard, has regular dates with two prostitutes from the city and delights in tormenting a visiting African-American FBI agent with racist comments that are so stupid that the American begins to question whether he’s just being put on. In the end, however, the garda gives his life to stop the criminals that the American is chasing.
In the movie that’s currently playing in theaters, Calvary, Gleeson plays Father James who is told in confession at the beginning of the movie that he will be killed. The priest who abused the “penitent” as a child is now dead so he has selected Fr. James, a good priest, to pay for the sins of the bad priest. With a title like Calvary, the movie obviously links Fr. James’ death with that of Jesus, the innocent who died for the sins of others.
The movie takes place over the week between the confession and Fr. James’ appointment on the beach with the abused man. In the course of carrying out his pastoral duties and dealing with family problems, Fr. James wrestles with what he should do. There are also scenes that recall episodes in the passion of Jesus. “The Agony in the Garden” takes place in a bar. The “scourging at the pillar” is inflicted by a bat wielded by a bartender. The “mocking” stuns Fr. James when the father of a young girl with whom he is chatting drives up, rushes the girl into the car, and confronts Fr. James as if he’s a molester.
In The Guard, the character of Officer Boyle does not so much develop as it reveals itself. As a man who became a priest late in life after his wife died, Fr. James has the air of someone at home with himself, though he is challenged by a visit from his troubled daughter. Part of what keeps you interested in The Guard is its variations on the familiar buddy-cop theme. Calvary is held together a bit more mechanically by the passing of each day. Yet, by the end Fr. James has become comfortable with going down to the beach at the appointed time.
Dorothee Soelle argues that “Sacrificial acts … have meaning only when they are performed by persons living in harmony with themselves. … Selflessness is possible only where a particular level of self-awareness has been achieved.” (1982) 38-39 In contrast to the Buddhist foundation of compassion on no-self, for Soelle “the greater one’s realization of selfhood the greater one’s ability for true renunciation.” Remember, however, that by selfhood Soelle means freedom. (55) Even at the end, Fr. James freely lets go of himself to try to rescue his would-be killer.