Reviewed by Gerry and Siobhan Laskey
TWO FILMS now available on Netflix – happily, since there was likely scant (if any) theatrical release of them near most of us last year – are fascinating in their takes on faith. Les Innocentes and Calvary deal with the resilience of faith in Christ in a context of aggression, doubt, horrific acts and sacrifice.
While both films treat the Christian faith with knowledge and respect, key characters display varying views from devotion to cynicism to outright hostility. Some never had faith, others lost or rejected it, some struggle with it, some others either compromise their own faith or are compromised by it, and a few seem to be approaching its threshold.
How real is faith? Can it withstand great pressures and personal sacrifices? Can it transcend calamities? Can it be lived heroically so as to witness to unbelievers? These are the themes both films treat in ways that are substantial for believers and satisfying for film buffs.
Les Innocentes (The Innocents) is set in and around a Polish convent in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Still occupied, the country is in the process of becoming a Soviet client state and civil society is in disarray. The convent is bracing for an uncertain future under an almost certainly hostile new regime. Its settled way of life has been shaken as it reels from a war crime perpetrated by Soviet forces during ‘liberation.’ The awful secret being kept by the nuns is revealed to us early on but its full magnitude only becomes clear as the film progresses.
In an opening scene one nun breaks rank and seeks help from one of the medical personnel at a nearby Red Cross hospital for French forces. This ‘violation’ of the convent rule brings crucial help to a community in crisis. The young medic, Matilde, respects the nuns (and, at times, seems drawn to their witness) but does not share their faith. Her French parents had raised her as a “strict Communist.” She and the nuns reluctantly form a negotiated alliance, each side needing to relax several of their usual “rules.”
Matilde later needs to bring into this secret collaboration the French Jewish male doctor she works alongside. Both of them and several nuns sometimes run afoul of their respective authorities and also, at critical times, of the Soviet occupation force. There is plenty of drama going on in the outside world, but it is the inner dramas of both believers and non-believers and the serious dialogue between them that is the meatiest part of the film and its most moving aspect. The reality of self-sacrificial service is beautifully developed in both sets of characters.
The gradual revealing of ‘good guys’ on the ‘bad’ side (the Soviet troops) and ‘bad guys’ on the ‘good’ side (the nuns) is well-crafted in the narrative and adds more depth to an already substantial story. The main twist on the nuns’ side constitutes a real spoiler, so you will have to watch for it yourself! The dance of faith, uncertainty, doubt and wonder tell a powerful tale, which is based on true events. Some characters reach across barriers and grow in their vocations and humanity. Others make compromises to protect what is seen as the “greater good” – the survival of the community – while sacrificing the deeper sacred truths the community lives by and the ultimate effectiveness of its witness to the world.
Calvary is set in the present in a small Irish village where Father James is living out his later life vocation (having been ordained priest after his wife’s death) while negotiating relationships with his visiting adult daughter and the village residents. Many of these folk are active parishioners, some amiable agnostics, some hostile atheists or former believers. As the title suggests, this is a kind of passion play book-ended by a Sunday on each side. Most of the semi-sympathetic characters – almost all seen receiving Holy Communion near the beginning – are revealed as deeply flawed as the narrative peels back the onion-layers of this story.
As the pastor’s personal ‘holy week’ passion unfolds these characters all seem to turn on the priest – who is himself not without real flaws. One is reminded of the fickle crowds of Jerusalem transitioning from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify!” during Jesus’ passion. The deepening downward spiral of derision, mockery and hostility toward the priest from most – but not quite all – push him closer to the edge. Again, desertion, betrayal and various tortures drag him into his own Gethsemane. While he has a very realistic pastoral ‘read’ on his village, being wonderfully witty and sarcastic most of the time, he is not one who always embodies “when reviled he reviled not again.” He turns to his superiors and civic authorities, but finds little comfort or guidance. He has a few very nasty ‘falls’ near the end of his personal way of the cross.
The opening scene is a disturbing dialogue in the confessional that sets the stage for the week’s drama. The sins of the institutional hierarchy of the Church in contrast with the basically blameless ministry of a ‘good priest’ are the key ingredients in the dramatic tension of the film. But this recipe is well marinated in a sauce rich with the complexities of pastoral ministry. One crucial scene involves a visiting young French widow whose husband has received Last Rites from Father James. She has a solid faith and reappears briefly later and encourages the priest. This is, perhaps, when Father James accepts his cup in Gethsemane.
We are left to ponder: Is the priest a good pastor? A good father to his daughter? A coward or a hero? Do his decisions and actions compromise or deepen his devotion to Christ? Is his final encounter with his erstwhile ‘penitent’ a waste or a sacrifice, a tragedy or a farce? If you can stand a bit of very graphic language, some sexual references, and a few gruesome scenes in order to persevere with this sometimes strange tale, we think you will benefit from Calvary. We also suggest it just may be one of those films you will need to watch twice to decide! TAP
Gerry and Siobhan Laskey reside in the Parish of Derby and Blackville in New Brunswick where Gerry serves as Rector.