Why Every Christian Should Watch ‘Calvary’ … and Avoid ‘God’s Not Dead’

Why Every Christian Should Watch ‘Calvary’ … and Avoid ‘God’s Not Dead’ August 21, 2014


I’m not going to mince words about this.

Heaven is For Real and God’s Not Dead are not Christian movies.

They are not even religious movies. They are schmaltzy, vacuous, “inspirational” movies.

If a film leaves viewers with a fist full of answers rather than questions, with declarative reassurances that heaven is real and God is alive, then it’s not really a movie about faith and it’s certainly not a Christian movie.

Those films are little more than mindless memes. They are scary chain letters that one relative always sends about Christianity being under attack in America.

But, of course, we’ve all seen what happens when a film about a religious subject attempts to wrestle with difficult topics. Take Noah, a film that, for all its faults, actually took a creative approach to the flood story and wrestled with some difficult issues about the nature of God and humankind. But, it got blasted by evangelicals with such vitriol that it shocked one of its writers!

Now, we’ve finally got a film though that does attempt to wrestle with faith. Now, we’ve finally got a film that asks questions about faith rather than answer them. Finally, we’ve got an honest film about Christianity, displaying on screen both its beauty and grace as well as its ugly warts and sins.

It’s the kind of film that sticks with you. For weeks, if not months.

It’s been almost two months since I watched John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary.

And I still can’t stop thinking about it.

It’s not just a movie you can sink your teeth into. It’s a film that sinks into your bones.

And that is the kind of movie we need to be showing at church, not the emotional, saccharine drivel that normally passes for films about Christianity.

Calvary wrestles. It questions. It struggles. It lifts audiences up, and it lays them low. It is the best film about the current state of church and religion in the modern world, engaging hard issues and difficult questions. If it makes us uncomfortable — and it will — it’s because it strikes close to the bone. If it makes us hope — and it will — it’s because it offers grace devoid of sanctimony and the white American spirituality of God is Not Dead or Heaven is For Real. 

Calvary opens with a shot to let audiences know that even though we are in a small fictional town in Ireland , we are very much in the real world of today. Father James Lavelle, masterfully portrayed by Brendan Gleeson, is taking the confession of one of his parishioners. This disembodied voice explains to the priest that he was abused as a boy by another Catholic priest. In retribution for the terrible sins done against him, the confessing man vows to kill the Fr. James in seven days.

The rest of the film follows Fr. James’ week and his interactions with members of his parish. Fr. James, it seems, knows who threatened his life, but the audience doesn’t. It’s a creative riff off a who-done-it plot line that keeps audiences guessing and engaged.

But the intellectual center of the movie has less to do with the looming threat of murder, but with Fr. James’ day-to-day interactions in a small town where religion — once a glue that held the community together — has lost its hold and its importance. That kind of fracture and loss of meaning is exactly what is facing many Christians who feel betrayed by churches or let down and unimpressed by the answers they give to their questions. In sociological terms, this film is very much about anomie.

These townspeople express deep doubts and suspicions about the church and have no issue confronting its many moral failings.  Sure, the townspeople are slightly hyperbolic in their vices, but the message they convey about the loss of meaning are harrowingly accurate.

I wish every single person of faith would watch these scenes in particular, because these questions are our questions, and it’s rare to see them so starkly on film. This, of course, was an intentional move on writer/director McDonagh’s part, too.

“I just felt if we are going to do an original movie and a follow up to The Guard that people won’t be expecting, then let’s make a movie like this that hasn’t come out in awhile,” McDonagh told me recently.  “Something that does deal with all this philosophical and spiritual issues that we deal with every day of our lives but it’s never shown in a movie anymore.”

If these questions are the intellectual meat of the film, Gleeson’s Fr. James is its fiercely beating heart. Brilliant does not begin to describe it. It’s damn near flawless.

As my friend and fellow Patheos writer J. Ryan Parker put it, 

In Calvary, McDonagh has give us one of the most honest portrayals of a Catholic priest (or any minister for that matter) in the history of the genre. Father James is compassionate, thoughtful, honest, and even broken himself. He exposes the villager’s own lies and failings for what they are, but he also confesses his own ignorance or confusion when they confront him with deep theological or philosophical questions.

It’s no surprise his portrayal was so compelling. Gleeson seems to just get the challenges of ministry and pastoral care. (Get thee to the movies, CPE folks!)

“For me, the absorption of other people’s pain, I think, was far more taxing, even if it’s done by proxy. I’m an actor. I’m not actually Fr. James, so you kind of think there is a kind of protection there,” Gleeson told me recently.“But even at that distance … you cannot do it without breaking at some point. You cannot absorb other people’s pain and expect that you have a bottomless well of optimism and of being able to cope with it. I knew that was true but to feel it in the making of a film in this way was an eye-opener.

This is a dark, dark comedy. I found myself laughing and cringing, angered and saddened, hopeful and despairing. But never, ever lost. Calvary is  an incredibly profound and hopeful portrait of a priest and the crisis facing the modern church.

It’s a film that is mean to be discussed and wrestled with.

And that, to my mind, makes it truly a religious movie, or at least, a movie for the religious. You won’t find the vacuous escapism into the white-washed world of God Is Not Dead. You won’t find the naivety of afterlife experiences of a little boy of Heaven is For Real. You won’t find simple reassurance that everything is going to be okay.

Instead, you’ll find a priest who ventures out of the sanctuary and into the real world. You’ll find questions that resist easy answers. You’ll find a dark world with sparks of hope and laughter. And you’ll find a movie that sticks with you for days and weeks after the final credits roll.

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  • bill holston

    Great and thought provoking review. Thanks. Reminds me of my two favorite films in this light, the Apostle and Ed Harris in The Third Miracle.

  • Have you actually seen Heaven is for Real? I would never argue that it’s a great movie, but it’s cut from an entirely different cloth than God’s Not Dead, and it certainly presents a more thought-provoking and nuanced perspective than the book. More of my thoughts here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/2014/05/the-surprisingly-profound-theology-of-heaven-is-for-real/

    • Jeff

      Yeah, I was going to say the same thing. I didn’t read the book, but based on what I knew about it I didn’t have high hopes for the movie. I was really surprised by the film, as it wasn’t at all like what I expected; it really wasn’t about the child’s trip to Heaven at all, it was really more about the struggle of the people around him — his family, his church — to reconcile the claims with the circumstances in which they occurred and with their own beliefs — even those that believed in heaven, or wanted to.
      Calvary sounds good (sounds a bit like In Bruges, also very good), but HifR definitely seemed to me to be more about thre process of asking questions than about giving pat answers. Whether it was schmaltzy or vacuous or inspirational is in the eye of the viewer, I suppose…

  • poiema3

    This is how I felt about “Blue Like Jazz”. I’ll add this to my “to watch” list. Thanks.

  • Eric Boersma

    For other quality instances of religious films that leave us wrestling with faith and doubt, I suggest Philomena and Paradise Recovered, two of the better films I’ve watched in recent years and both dealing with religion on a level most religious movies wouldn’t dare.

  • jenna

    Hmmm. This article leaves me wondering– does the movie address the love and redemption Jesus brings us, the foundation of this religion called Christianity? The article seems to address faith more as a philosophy, although certainly it isn’t meant to be a comprehensive look at personal faith. As a minister, I definitely know (and experience) the struggles of choosing light and hope in Christ in the face of failings, and I make no assertions about the faith or viewpoints of the author–the article just seems to take that approach. I suppose I will watch the movie and find out. 🙂

    • him_that_be

      I saw the film in January, so it isn’t fresh in my mind. Fr. James is very much dependent on his faith, and as a Catholic priest it is implied, if not out right stated that it is in Jesus. In addition the whole film is a very loose allegory for Christ’s death (see the film’s title). And yes, the film does deal with that redemption.

      As the author says it is not an easy film, nor is it intended to be evangelical in its approach. On one hand the film takes a philosophical approach, but it is not a distant philosophy, it is very much a boots on the ground philosophy.

      If the mark of a good film is to ask more questions than it answers, I think the two questions that this film asks are, “What does it really mean to be Christian?” and “Why does it matter?”

  • Alan

    Thanks. I always thought religion was about pain and angst and not about hope and redemption.

    • Matt Story

      Real hope and redemption are found on the other side of struggles and hard questions. They are not the product of mindless optimism.

  • herewegokids

    2 other really good ones: The Mission and Juno.

    • David Spence

      If you like The Mission you must see Black Robe.

  • Dick Elliott

    I have not watched the
    movie, ‘GOD’S NOT DEAD’ because I do not need to. I have watched ‘HEAVEN IF FOR
    REAL’ and I believe the little boy did have an experience in Heaven. I believe
    it because on April 18th, 1975, during life saving surgery, I experienced an
    out of body event.

    During my surgery I
    remember watching one Doctor stitch up my belly and another doctor walk out the
    door. Then, in an instant, I was in a hall way and noticed a large person
    walking my way. I recognized him as we got closer. The man told me to tell them:

    As I continued walking towards
    a room with a lot of people I recognized right away my sister, her husband, and
    his relatives. I remember placing my arms around my sister and her husband and
    said: “HE IS ALRIGHT. HE IS WITH JESUS.” You see the man I passed was
    my brother in laws dad.

    The next thing I remember
    is waking up in the recovery room and grabbing my mom. I remember the nurse saying
    to my mom: “He is really excited about something” as she came over to us.
    I looked at my mom and said: “BILL’S DAD DIED!” I remember the look
    on mom’s face which I will never forget. The nurse asked my mom: “WHAT WAS
    JUST TOOK THE CALL BEFORE COMING IN HERE. My mom asked me how I knew that:
    “I WAS THERE” I said.

    I know this event happened
    because of three important facts: (1) Mom got the call about the death while I
    was still in the operating room and (2) The most important fact….I was in a
    hospital on the West side of my town and Bill’s dad and family was in another
    hospital six miles from me….(3) My mom did not have time tell anybody as she
    was headed to the recovery room.

    I did not see God. No
    Angels, no devils, just my sister and her in laws. What I came away with from
    that experience is the reality of life after an earthly death.

    My life changed that day
    forever. Prior to that day I was a pure S.O.B. and drank my way through two
    marriages. Not anymore. Thirty nine years sober and married to the same women.

    I can’t walk on water, I
    do not live a holier than thou life, but I do live with the knowledge that, for
    me, life will go on after I am finished here.

    Praise Be Jesus, the
    Christ. Amen.

  • Hunter Dennis

    There is room for all kinds of films. I’m not sure if the vitriol for GND or HIFR is justified. Both GND and HIFR were wildly successful, the lesser of the two basically doubling the gross of the previous number one contemporary Christian film — and both being far more successful than this film will ever hope to be. Obviously people need to be challenged but remember the lesson of “Sullivan’s Travels”. Life is challenging for most people, a fact that sometimes escapes the intelligentsia who seek an intellectual or emotionally sophisticated quandry in their art. Do we need to have all these films opposing each other? Is one truly better than the other… or did they all serve to fulfill wildly different purposes?

    • flyingdetrius

      A good portion of the gross of both of these movies was due to both local and mega churches buying out screenings of these movies – in advance of actual showings.

      • Hunter Dennis

        Respectfully, I must reeducate. Churches did buy out screenings. But God’s Not Dead did not have a huge opening considering its gross. It had “legs” and good word of mouth. It became wildly successful, it opened moderately. In fact, Son of God, a movie that didn’t do as well, had a larger opening.

      • flyingdetrius

        You really should do your research before attempting to reeducate anyone, also, I did not say that the openings were sellouts so try to understand what you are reading before correcting people.

    • Matt Story

      1. So what if these movies were successful?
      2. This piece is about looking for movies that take an honest, mature look at faith. That’s not the same thing as being “intellectual” (whatever that means).
      3. There’s nothing wrong with comparing different movies.

      • Hunter Dennis

        Well, let me put it this way. Calvary is a depressing movie that showed Christianity as the filmmaker wanted it to be and Catholicism as the filmmaker wanted it to be and not what it is. In that context, it isn’t really Christian at all, rather a post-modern deconstruction of Christianity. Saying that Calvary is somehow the end-all and God’s Not Dead and Heaven is For Real are ridiculous is somewhat spurious to me. Both those movies portrayed Christianity with more honesty than Calvary, a film that sought to redefine the faith according to the mores of the filmmaker. It has had no impact, no one has really seen it and if it breaks three million domestic box it will be a miracle. And we are being told that this is the be-all end-all of Christian films and GND and HIFR are the works of simpletons. Both of those films were undeniably Christian and undeniable box office smashes. You can’t say those things about Calvary. So why are we putting these films down and advancing Calvary? The only thing I can think of is that the reviewer is using the success of those two movies to advance his review. And I suppose that says something in and of itself.

      • Sarah

        Sorry but I really liked it. It sums up how I feel about the Catholic Church at the moment where everyone is being crucified by the sins of a few. Ireland must be going through sheer he’ll at the moment. I took my friend an Irish Catholic priest to see it – he is very much like Fr James – he liked it too. Christianity has never been easy and at times Faith is near impossible. No-one at work can understand why I still go to church after the scandals. I am not naive. – I have read all the reports – and yet at a very deep level I still have faith.

  • revtk

    I’m looking forward to see this movie. Perhaps this is the one that finally bumps “Spit Fire Grill” from my favorite all time movie list.

  • ATLmom

    !Contains Spoilers!
    I’ve read several reviews and have yet to read one that summarizes the movie as I saw it: and allegory for Christ’s sacrifice. Father James is innocent and willingly gives his life at the end of the movie for the ‘sins’ of his brothers (pedophile priests). The movie centers on the Father’s visits to his parishioners. It’s as if he is gathering up their sins and carrying them to the cross. He is even punished, like Jesus was (church burning, dog’s death and being beat up in the bar) Or could this be how Christ was denied 3 times? Did anyone else feel this way?

    • Matt Story

      Could you at least have put in a spoiler alert?

      • ATLmom

        So sorry everyone!

    • Chris

      Yeah, that is exactly what it was. Not exactly subtle (hence the NAME of the film). But I also thought it was incredibly unrealistic. It was like an episode of 24. What pastor/priest in one week has to deal with: 1) his own imminent murder; 2) his daughter surviving suicide; 3) confronting several unrepentant adulterers w/o any church discipline; 4) visiting a serial cannibalistic murderer in prison; 5) visiting a homosexual prostitute; 6) shoots up a bar and then gets beat up; 6) having his dog killed; 7) having his church burned; 8) recommends a frustrated young man use porn and failing that, commit fornication; 9) confronts a materialistic pig; 10) listens to an atheist doctor mock faith; 11) witnesses parishoners using Cocaine; 12) help an old man prepare for suicide?

      Good attempt, but fail. It was not grittingly realistic as some critics have said. It was an allegory, and hence unbelievable, despite some decent acting.

  • ATLmom

    Oh…one more thing. Fthr James, in response to his daughters question (what is your best virtue) says” “Forgiveness is under-rated.” Then at the very end we see his daughter visiting Jack in prison, tears in her eyes. I fully believe she went their to forgive him. And isn’t that one of the central messages of Christ at Calvary? Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.

  • Guest

    Father Ted is all really you need.

  • steveschlicht

    Father Ted is all you really need to watch.

  • David

    Really people? Read the bible, nobody needs a movie. That being said however, why knock anything that leads people to Jesus Christ and a righteous way of life?

    • Brenda Stevens

      God Is Not Dead does not do that. It’s a movie for people who already feel pretty darned proud of themselves for being the right kind of Christian and it promotes the myth of Christian persecution. It also puts education and philosophy in opposition to faith and religion, which they are not. It promotes the growing anti-intellectualism that threatens to destroy American society.

  • Robert Nielsen

    Not to be contrary but I saw Calvary and I hated it. Partly because based on McDonaghs previous work with Gleeson (In Bruges and The Guard, which is my favourite film, not just because it was shot where I live) I thought it would be a comedy. I was greatly let down there.

    Disclosure: I’m an Atheist.

    Irish films are a lot more subtle and darker than American ones, so this is a definite improvement on Gods Not Dead etc. However, I felt that for most of the film, nothing was happening. It seemed to be listing about directionless. There was no flow or connection between the scenes. To be honest it was boring.

    Then there’s the religious message. In fairness at least it was subtle and not in your face, but it was just as blunt as American religious propaganda. Every single person without exception is lost and troubled without religion. The divorced woman is a promiscuous troubled druggie. The gay guy is gone in the head. There’s the stereotypical cynical heartless Atheist. We even have a big scary black man beating a white woman. The only character not portrayed in a very negative light is the religious French woman.

    Every character is hammering a conservative Catholic message about how meaningless and troubled our lives our without the Church. Without the Church the world is plunged into darkness. Sure its more nuanced than others, but deep down its just old wine in new bottles.

  • Jeremy Carlson

    I went and saw it yesterday. Very intriguing film for sure! Startling at times. Not packaged in the “pretty little box” like other films. But I don’t believe the filmmaker was trying to have this film appeal to mainstream “Christian” film audiences. Which is great. There is room for films on all sides. Seeing blogs calling this the BEST and all other movies trash is just to much. God’s Not Dead and other films like it are created for a certain audience and are very successful in reaching that audience. Calvary is created for a totally different crowd. And that’s ok! 70+ million people a year see a film in the theater. The more movies that can start conversations about faith, what you believe and healing the better in my opinion.

  • Pearl

    If schmaltzy inspirational films weren’t enjoyable, the Hallmark Channel wouldn’t exist. Most of the movies I’ve seen at Family Christian and Lifeway stores are schmaltzy inspiration. It’s okay to watch them all. Take them as what they are: Inspirational movies. Get your Christ from the Bible, be the hands and feet of Christ in your community. And Christ can show up where you least expect it.

  • Luke

    That’s it…let’s dog on anything positive that is actually coming out in society rather than focus on the fact that we actually still have positive messages being produced. Just because it may not DIRECTLY commit to the Biblical message of salvation does not mean we should throw it away and dismiss it. Not everything will always answer all questions, but maybe, just maybe you should consider that these movies allow for conversations to begin that lead to answers of questions that in turn can point people to Christ. I feel your perspective is slightly narrow-minded here. As Christians, we can use the tools around us in whatever way God may provide and at least these movies give us something positive to go off of. Honestly, I believe you may be missing the point. I do not discount the movie Calvary and you have made me desire to see it, but I choose to disagree with your viewpoint on the others.

  • I wish that I had listened to this first:


    …before I watched, “God’s not Dead”.

  • vid932008

    yeup . . here’s a plug for something positive, rather than re-arranging the scraps. http://vid932008.vhx.tv/ . Where is the JOY of the Gospel, including the freedom and JOY of Forgiveness as a way of life, rather than a resolution to any specific conflict ?

  • SisterRose

    I just interviewed Brenden Gleeson this morning. I think your post reinforces what he says about the film. Hope to post it by Nov 1. But I liked “Heaven is for Real” where the angels laugh. Come on.

  • Kirk Lindsay

    I don’t watch many ” christian films” but enjoyed God’s not dead. Other great movies to watch is Levity(Billy bob Thorton and Morgan freeman) Saint Ralph, What Dreams may Come(Robin Williams),Saved,The Miracle Maker, The Gates of Spendlor, the Mission, and Solaris(the Russian version)