John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary has received glowing praise in the British press, though a somewhat more lukewarm response in Ireland. Much of the coverage has centred on the question of whether or not it succeeds as a critique of post-Catholic, post-Celtic-Tiger Ireland. Without providing an answer one way or the other, I want to briefly consider its use of humour.
Calvary was billed and reviewed as a black comedy. The humour is certainly black enough, with smalltalk about paedophilia, domestic abuse, pubs being shut down and other socially unacceptable practices. The problem lies with the ‘humour’ side of the equation. I found it a strikingly unfunny film, in a way that is helpful in thinking about how it takes up those big themes of religion and society.
Comedy need not be uplifting to be funny – or rather, even if good comedy is always amusing, it can carry more disturbing emotional or satirical undertones. The difference between a point made through comedy and one advanced by other means is often little to do with the point itself or the emotion it seeks in the audience, and more a matter of the tone in which it is delivered. While it need not always provide relief, comedy must work by a light touch. Satire which is not deft is mere propaganda, and black humour will slide into nihilism or despair without a spark of enjoyment to light up its darkness.
The comedy in Calvary is, by and large, ponderous and unsubtle. This may be particularly true for an Irish audience, but it is hard not to wince at each clichéd scene Brendan Gleeson’s troubled priest is faced with: politically correct fellow-clergy, a dissolute former banker, achingly casual references to homosexuality and adultery, and so on. With the mise-en-scene stacked in this way, there is no sense of normality against which irony or understatement can work. When almost every character offers little but a jocular challenge to Fr. Lavelle’s moral system, the power of irony to reveal something terrible without displaying it – the electrical charge of genuine black comedy – fizzles out.
Black humour ultimately relies on the laughter of recognition. We laugh because we understand the gulf between how characters speak and act, and the things which they reveal in doing so. McDonagh’s script leaves no gap across which our recognition can reach. It is merely blackness in search of comedy.