Starring Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach De Bankolé, M. Emmet Walsh, Marie-Josée Croze, Domhnall Gleeson, David Wilmot, Pat Shortt, Gary Lydon, Killian Scott, Orla O’Rourke, Owen Sharpe, David McSavage, Mark O’Halloran, Declan Conlon, Anabel Sweeney and Mícheál Óg Lane.
Screenplay by John Michael McDonagh.
Directed by John Michael McDonagh.
Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures. 100 minutes. Rated R.
Anyone going into Calvary expecting something similar to The Guard, the hysterically funny previous collaboration between writer/director John Michael McDonagh and star Brendan Gleeson, will be in for quite a shock.
While Calvary is filmed in much the same area of Ireland, has many of the same cast members and is, in its way, often extremely funny, the new film is significantly darker thematically and tonally.
The change is made explicit from the very first line. Gleeson plays Father James Lavelle, a brusque, untraditional, but ultimately good man of the cloth. He is sitting alone in the confessional. A man steps inside to give his confession. “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old,” the voice says.
Quite an opening line.
The confessor continues, explaining that he was abused for years by a priest. The priest who had victimized the man was dead, therefore in exactly one week the man had decided to murder Father James.
“There’s no point in killing a bad priest,” he says. “I’m going to kill you because you’re innocent.”
Calvary is about the repercussions of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic church. However, just because it has chosen such an explosive subject, that does not mean that the film is anti-religious or an attack on the church.
Calvary does a masterful job of balancing the dark and the light of modern religion.
And, as before, that balance is carried by the masterful job of acting by Gleeson. Even graded on the curve of this terrific thespian’s career, his portrayal of Father James is a standout.
Instead of turning the man in (he acknowledges that he knows who has threatened him), Father James returns to serving his flock. This flock is made up of eccentrics and reprobates who seem to have only one thing in common, a total disdain for the father.
Amongst the oddballs whose souls Father James has been charged to keep are an angry butcher (Chris O’Dowd) who is being very publicly cuckolded by his wife (Orla O’Rourke), who is blatantly carrying out an affair with an African national (Isaach De Bankolé). There is a heartless businessman (Dylan Moran) who has been left by his wife and wants to give money to the Catholic church as a cynical salve for all the bad he has done in his life. There is an atheist ER doctor (Aiden Gillen) with a horrific story about how he became so disenfranchised.
Oddly, the only people who seem to have a kind word for the priest are the visitors. M. Emmet Walsh plays a good-hearted American novelist. Marie-Josée Croze is a French tourist whose husband is killed while traveling through the area. Most vitally, Kelly Reilly plays the priest’s estranged daughter, who is visiting trying to patch things up with dad after she failed a half-hearted suicide attempt.
But no matter what happens, Father James tries his best to help. He’s an imperfect priest, however he does believe in people and has faith in their inherent goodness.
In our recent interview with Gleeson, he insisted that he did not consider Father James to be a Christ-like character, though he certainly did suffer for his congregant’s sins.
As the film passes through the week, inevitably leading to the showdown set up in the opening scene, the father lives through all of the stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, depression and then acceptance.
He continues forward, trying to do good at every turn, simply because he has faith that this is what God expects from him. Through his purity and goodness, what could be a very scathing look at religion takes on a transcendence. Calvary is nearly divine in its glory. Expect to see it on a lot of lists of the year’s best films.
Jay S. Jacobs