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Film Review: Calvary

Calvary (2014; Directed by John Michael McDonagh)

Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is a good man and a good Catholic priest, but that seems to matter not at all. He ministers to the concerns and doubts of his parishoners in a small community in Ireland’s County Sligo. He attempts to discourage the domestic violence committed against a promiscuous local woman (Orla O’Rourke); tries to dissuade a bowtie-wearing odd bird (Killian Scott) from his murderous tendencies as well as from giving them a professional outlet by joining the army; susses out the sincerity of a wealthy financier (Dylan Moran) who offers to make a handsome donation to the Church to assuage his guilt and loneliness; maintains a fond yet prickly friendship with an elderly writer (M. Emmet Walsh) finishing a book in an isolated cottage; admonishes his only altar boy for nipping communion wine; and fights valiantly to avoid losing patience with his twit of a fellow priest (Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan). Closer to home, he also tries to reconnect with his daughter (Kelly Reilly) from his pre-ordainment marriage, who visits him from London after attempting suicide.

Above all, though, Father James struggles to overcome the widespread contempt for and distrust of the Catholic Church in Ireland following the revelations of rampant child abuse by its clergy, compounded by the Church leadership’s concerted cover-up efforts. The notorious scandal is employed by those he encounters as a persistent trump card to his well-meaning efforts to offer comfort, solace, or guidance. James scrambles doggedly for the moral high ground, but the barrages of disdain for his chosen religious vocation and its association with organized pedophilia put him in reluctant retreat every time.

But the abuse scandal has much more dire consequences for Father James. In Calvary‘s first scene, a man enters the confessional booth and promises to kill James in a week’s time, on a Sunday morning. The man reveals himself to have been sexually abused by a priest (now deceased), and will punish the Church for its crimes by murdering a good priest, to maximize the shock. The remainder of the film builds towards this fateful Sunday encounter, the identity of James’s assassin held secret until the ending and ably concealed by the consistent shabby treatment that he receives from every man in town.

Calvary is the second film by writer-director John Michael McDonagh, following the more freewheeling and comic The Guard, which also starred Brendan Gleeson. McDonagh possesses a secondhand grasp of the scabrously crude but frequently hilarious dialogue and conflicted engagement with historical Catholic guilt displayed by his better-known and more brilliant older brother Martin, auteur of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. There is much less meta-play and genre flexibility in the younger McDonagh’s films, but his visual sense has evolved quickly while his writing has sharpened and embraced the unsettling moral ambiguities inherent to the Catholic Church’s transformed role in Irish society and culture.

Calvary has some funny snatches of dialogue (the exchange between James and the bowtie-clad Milo is probably the high-water mark) but it does not ever rise to the level of black comedy, remaining as a simmering drama of one man’s accruing suffering for the sins of others. One would likely need a theological degree to properly parse the film’s Catholic symbolism, metaphors, and referrents, but the title alone (referring to the hill outside Jerusalem upon which Jesus is purported to have been crucified) makes its core association between this humble Irish priest and the divine Saviour in whose name he serves crystal clear. The Passion of Father James contains kernels of other biblical stories, too: the Book of Job, ever a favourite for dramatized explorations of the anguish of maintaining faith in a hostile world, is an obvious reference point.

But Calvary has no truck with self-aggrandizing Christ postures. The tremendous Gleeson allows James’s troubled humanity to fill the frame but never transcend its temporal bonds; his late career renaissance continues under the creative stewardship of the McDonagh brothers, who are at last giving this great actor roles worthy of his expansive ability. McDonagh punctuates James’s fateful, pained march towards judgement with sweeping, achingly gorgeous long shots of the County Sligo landscape. These shots function like god’s-eye views, as if the director strapped a camera to an angel sent to observe the trials of a mortal servant of its ineffable master.

It cannot be said that Calvary is exactly satisfying in its moral conclusions or thematic aims. But then neither is contemporary Catholicism, at least not in the unsettled hearts and minds of its increasingly numerous doubters. Calvary feels much more vital than The Guard, a resonant statement of the fallout of the Church’s perceived betrayal of its flock in Ireland, once one of its true strongholds. The sacrifices of Father James carry lingering hints of redemption, reconciliation, and resurrection: after all, he meets his fate not on a Friday, like Jesus, but on a Sunday, the day of the rise from death. But this is not a film about achieving salvation but struggling forever in search of it, to no avail. Calvary makes that struggle seem inherent noble but also sublimely painful and hopeless, and perhaps ultimately futile, though it seems to carry a prayer that this last judgement does not hold.

Categories: Film, Religion, Reviews
  1. September 27, 2015 at 10:42 am

    Great review.

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