If you like your comedy black, then Calvary is a film you will want to see. Likewise, if you prefer your movie viewing experience to encompass philosophical musings on life and death, good and evil and faith and retribution, then Calvary is also the film for you. Following their partnership on The Guard, director John Michael McDonagh and leading man Brendan Gleeson have again teamed up for another story of a good man battling dark forces, this time in a small community in County Sligo on Ireland’s west coast. On this occasion, Gleeson is Father James Lavelle, a priest battling to save his own life whilst remaining diligent in his service to a community in which everybody is damaged in some way, whether it is physically, emotionally, financially or psychologically. Whilst this is definitely a comedy, there are plenty of times when you feel uncomfortable finding amusement in what is transpiring, particularly given what is at stake.
The film opens in a confessional when Lavelle is told, in no uncertain terms, that he will be killed the following Sunday; the unidentified confessor seeking to avenge years of sexual abuse at the hands of the church. However, Lavelle has not been chosen because he is a perpetrator of such crimes. On the contrary, the confessor is adamant that only killing a “good priest” can serve as retribution for the pain and suffering that he has endured and, as such, Lavelle is seemingly the ideal target. Whilst we don’t know the identity of the person making the threat, our protagonist most certainly does, yet he never offers any clues to the audience, refusing to let the threat keep him from his parish responsibilities, which means ostensibly trying to help a group of people that seem beyond redemption; from Dylan Moran’s misanthropic millionaire to Aidan Gillen’s deranged doctor, to an unrecognisable Domnhall Gleeson (About Time, Frank) as a remorseless serial killer. Chris O’Dowd also features as a man suspected of assaulting his wife (Orla O’Rourke), who just happens to be having an affair with the local mechanic (Isaach De Bankole).
This film certainly does not celebrate Catholicism or religion generally for that matter. This is an examination of an honourable man who just happens to be a priest. It is his attitude, values and compassion that make him a decent person while it his vocation, rather than anything he has done, that is the reason for the untenable position in which he finds himself. The story is told in daily episodes as we count down to the fateful Sunday. When Lavelle’s daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) arrives back in town fresh from a failed suicide attempt, our protagonist is afforded an opportunity to reconnect and reflect upon his own shortcomings in the face of what could be his last days. Lavelle is certainly no saint and struggles to keep his own demons at bay.
This is a powerfully evocative film in which everything has been meticulously crafted. The dialogue is sparse yet affective and the landscape is captured in all its glory. In fact, the behaviours of the various characters serve as a toxic infection amongst an otherwise idyllic locale. There is nothing hurried in anything that happens, yet it is utterly riveting. Gleeson is superb in the lead role, delivering a nuanced and captivating performance as a man whose tolerance towards the myriad indulgences and indiscretions of his parishioners is stretched to breaking point. The supporting performances are also fine for the most part, although Gillen’s Dr Frank Harte is a particularly strange construct. Hollywood veteran M. Emmet Walsh is good fun as an aging writer preparing for his own impending demise, while the under-rated Reilly (Chinese Puzzle) impresses again as a woman who feels abandoned by all and sundry.
McDonagh, who also wrote the screenplay, has managed to make this somewhat sombre story a bewitching and thoroughly engrossing experience. There is absurdity and mirth mingled with moments of solemnity and grace that, as unlikely as it sounds, are combined splendidly to create an utterly profound cinematic experience. Whilst Calvary is a film about religion, it is certainly not evangelical in style or content. After all, it is the flaws of the Catholic Church, the impact on victims of abuse and the (lack of) consequences for perpetrators that kick-start the narrative. Furthermore, the film presents faith, for many in Sligo at least, as nothing more than a concept of convenience. Charming yet confronting, slow but never dull, Calvary is an intelligent and thought provoking film of the highest quality.