Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is a good-natured priest but finds himself being tormented by members of the local community. One day, when his life is threatened during a confession, the priest decides it's time to fight back against the dark forces around him.
SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: Brendan Gleeson carries the weight of an embattled Catholic Church in Calvary, John Michael McDonagh’s caustic follow up to The Guard. In cassock and clerical collar, Father James Lavelle (Gleeson) wanders his seaside Irish village like an exiled Shakespearean king, absorbing the jeers of his former congregants. In the opening scene, a man hidden by a confessional screen tells Father James that he 'first tasted semen" at seven years old, and in a week’s time will take revenge on the church for the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of its priests. 'There’s no point in killing a bad priest," the man says. 'I’m going to kill you because you’re innocent."
Sharply written discussions of faith and doubt vein through the thick-running cynicism
McDonagh, inspired by Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, blends the bitter melancholy of that film with themes that will resonate with especial force in McDonagh’s native Ireland. Gleeson’s Father James is a figure of sympathy and persecution, a martyr in the Graham Greene mold who only half-engages with the threat against his life. Calvary is divided into the seven days Father James’ confessor has given him, time parsed out in episodes involving the usual local suspects, including a meathead butcher (Chris O’Dowd), his tragic whore of a wife (Orla O’Rourke), her brutal Ivorian lover (Isaach Be Bankole), the village rent boy (Owen Sharpe), a nouveau riche nihilist (Dylan Moran), an atheist doctor (Aiden Gillen), a shady police inspector (Gary Lydon), and an elderly American writer (M. Emmet Walsh) preparing to die on his own terms.
In between jabs ('Your time is gone and you don’t even fucking realise it," one congregant tells him), Father James attempts to counsel the villagers, who seem to require his presence even as they revile it. Sharply written discussions of faith and doubt vein through the thick-running cynicism, a thread of moral and theological inquiry that grounds Calvary’s pervasive, almost sadistic irreverence and eventually carries the film to a surprisingly powerful ending.
But the true anchor of McDonagh’s tonal flights is Gleeson, never a more solid, complex, and soulful presence than he is here. As written, Father James is smarter and more emotionally evolved than his congregants, a literal pillar among bounding, motley caricatures. If Father James is obsolete, Calvary suggests that his best qualities—moral rectitude, strength of character, a steady gaze—have gone the way of the dodo as well. Those characters who demonstrate any sensitivity happen to be outsiders: the American, a grieving European woman (Marie-Josee Croze, lovely in a small but pivotal role), and Father James’s wispy daughter (Kelly Reilly and her fabulously romantic mop of hair), who returns to Calvary in the wake of a suicide attempt.
Something has gone off in Calvary, then, and the Church must accept a share of blame for the deadening atmosphere of cynicism, decadence, and disillusion. Calvary saves its ultimate indictment, however, for the more subtle, pernicious sin of detachment. On the next Sunday, as several characters come to Father James for succor—and one comes for his life—the film embraces fully its allegory of grievance and forgiveness. 'I suppose I felt detached from it," is Gleeson’s single acknowledgment of the abuse scandals wracking the Catholic Church in Ireland and around the world. If the peril of faith is seclusion, a sense of being held above or apart from the world, Calvary demonstrates in its shocking, anti-cathartic conclusion that modern faithlessness, whether proud or despairing, amounts to the same thing.
Tuesday 16 March, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Ireland, UK, 2014
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Chris O'Dowd, Marie-Josée Croze, Dylan Moran