The year in film

We need a solid film about the contemporary church that will ask the hard questions and answer them fairly, writes Aubrey Malone

The most controversial film of the year was Calvary, which divided people almost straight down the middle as to whether it was an accurate depiction of how people felt about religion in Ireland today or, on the contrary, a tasteless foray into a very virulent form of anti-clericalism.

The latter view seemed closer to the bone, though the fact that the central character was a priest of some integrity dented it somewhat.

Love it or hate it, though – and many people did both – it was compulsive viewing and stayed in my mind more than any other film I saw during the past 12 months.
Was it a masterpiece or a ‘monsterpiece’? While it had some very powerful things to say about the human condition, its concatenation of disaffected souls all too often veered it towards the surreal.

With critics as extreme as this, the Church didn’t seem to need to worry. The director himself admitted that, if it wasn’t for the religious dimension, it would have been a horror film.

On the other hand, the elements of Hitchcock’s I Confess and Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest put it on a different level entirely. In the end, it was undone by its own lofty aspirations, its characters not so much real people as mouthpieces for the kind of cynicicm that seems so rampant in Irish society at the moment.

Church bashing

Jimmy’s Hall and Noble, the biopic of Christina Noble, were well-made films but both of them tapped into a reservoir of Church bashing that seems all too prevalent in the cinema today, either overtly or covertly.

And what were we to make of Noah? There was $130 million spent on this but I don’t think it added much to our knowledge of its main character.

Some of the special effects looked the money but did we need all that violence? The same could have been said of films like 300 and Starred Up. 

Noah was an oblique work which couldn’t seem to make up its mind if it wanted simply to re-tell the Biblical story or adapt it for a New Age-y audience. In the end it fell between the two stools, though not without making a lot of noise.

More recently, Stations of the Cross offered us a more staid (if not static) view of religion.

Severe to the point of intolerance, it seemed like an offering from a previous decade in its chronicle of a world-view which denied its central character all but the most basic of earthly pleasures.

Once again, it was difficult to divine where exactly the loyalties of its director lay. It was engrossing in its formal dexterity but if it was meant as some form of corrective to the rampant liberalism that assails society today, it erred too much on the other side in espousing of a form of behaviour that reminded one more of the excesses of masochism than the true expression of spirituality through self-denial.

What we need in 2015 is a solid film about the contemporary Church that will ask the hard questions and answer them fairly. We don’t want whitewashing, but neither do we want gratuitous mudslinging.

We don’t want bland padres like those essayed by the likes of Bing Crosby and Spencer Tracy (which belonged to a simpler era) but neither do we want the life-denying stereotypes of priests and nuns we’ve been vouchsafed of late. The mistakes that have been made by the Church have been much publicised; it’s too easy for film-makers to rub our noses in them in farcical fashion, as they’ve been doing time and again.

We’ve come from a culture – I grew up in it – where children were frequently afraid of priests. Now priests are afraid of children. The wheel has come full circle. Some priests have told me they’re afraid to smile at children today. I can well believe it.

There’s a scene in Calvary where the central priest, played by Brendan Gleeson, is having an innocent conversation with a young girl. All of a sudden, the girl’s father (Liam Cunningham) screeches to a halt beside them in his car. He roars at the child, “What was he talking to you about?”

We’ve reached a point where every priest is a potential paedophile in some people’s minds. I don’t think John Michael McDonagh, the film’s director, is the kind of man to want to show sympathy to priests but he did so in this scene. It’s a grim picture of the way things are today in many sections of society. Maybe the Pandora’s box was opened all those years ago by Fr Ted, long before the clerical scandals reared their ugly head. Since then, we’ve been reaping the whirlwind in some shape or form.

The year was also notable for two untimely deaths, those of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams. 

Both men, in a sense, were tortured geniuses whose drug habits of their youthful past came back to haunt them shortly before they died, providing proof yet again, if proof were needed, that a ‘clean’ period away from this curse can never be entirely taken for granted. 

On a happier note, there were many films I enjoyed during the year.


Two I remember most affectionately were Jersey Boys and Muppets Most Wanted. The most moving thriller, I thought, was Labour Day. I also appreciated, perhaps perversely, Jim Jarmusch’s quietly bizarre Only Lovers Left Alive. Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave won the Oscar for Best Movie but I felt it was over-rated.

No doubt it was a very potent piece of film-making but McQueen always chooses big themes and then says rather obvious things about them. Who’s going to say slavery isn’t contemptible? I prefer films that take unusual slants, rather than playing to captive audiences.  

Quirkiness was the order of the day for many others, like The Maps to the Stars and The Grand Budapest Hotel.

I liked the last one more than the others, though Wes Anderson is in danger of making quirkiness into his new conformity if he doesn’t break into a new stride soon. More pleasing by far was the “sleeper” movie of the year, Begin Again, though someone should give Keira Knightley a long holiday soon before she burns herself out.

A search for identity was another staple theme during the year, showcased with frolicsome entertainment value in vehicles like What If and Hector and The Search for Happiness. The best documentary of the year was undoubtedly Teenage. 

The oddest one was Frank and the most challenging Mr Turner. The best independent film was Nebraska but how can a work of such genius do the same kind of business as films like Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie or dross like Anchorman 2?

And so the circle turns. In the consumer war between art and mediocrity, mediocrity always wins. In America, ‘cinema’ is an anagram for ‘anemic’.  

Are they trying to tell us something?