Movie Review: Calvary
It’s Saint Patrick’s Day, so we’re going to review something Irish. It’s Rome month, so we’re looking at a movie about the Roman Catholic Church. There. Two perfectly plausible excuses for why we’re doing a new movie review for a film that came out last year. The real reasons for looking at Calvary are that it was given an extremely limited screening in the US market, and it’s a damn fine movie. Grab your rosary and a six pack of green beer and let’s get down to it.
Calvary follows a week in the life of an Irish Roman Catholic priest, Father James (Brendan Gleeson.) What makes this week special is that on Sunday, Father James is going to die. The film begins with Gleeson taking confession. The normal laundry list of petty sins proceed smoothly, though some odd confessions clue the audience in that this sleepy little coastal town has some intrigues already brewing. The last visitor calmly describes a horrific series of sexual abuses that he suffered at the hands of a priest growing up. Father James is at a loss how to handle the situation. The man claims that he doesn’t want an apology, he’s simply letting Father James know the reason why, in one weeks time, he will return to murder him. Not because he is a bad priest, but because he is a good priest, and nobody is outraged when a bad priest dies. The man then exits without asking for absolution.
Who Do You Say I Am?
What unfold from there is a curiously inverted who-dunnit. Talking to his superior, Father James admits that he knows the identity of the man who would kill him, because he recognizes the voice. Though he is morally cleared to go to the police (since the man didn’t ask for forgiveness, technically he wasn’t receiving a sacrament, and therefore confidentiality doesn’t pertain to this case,) Father James resists. He then goes about his daily affairs, attending to the spiritual needs of his mildly dysfunctional town. As he works with each member of his flock, we’re left to wonder if the person who he just helped is the one who is coming to kill him.
As we meet more and more of the colorful parishioners of the town, we find a tight-knit community that is only nominally religious. People are up to pretty average behavior, which would classify as some major sinning by the official rule book. Adultery, theft, spousal abuse, homosexuality, euthanasia, and more are the everyday concerns of the citizenry. The teachings of the church seem to hardly influence the lives of the people around Father James, but the church nevertheless acts as a communal touchstone, a gathering place and common affiliation. Even those who openly flout the church are on speaking terms with the priest…or at least sarcastic joking terms. This divide between expectations and reality, appearance and substance drives the younger Father Leary to cynicism, but Father James just takes it all in stride. The people are his charge…and well, you do the best you can with what you got.
The Living and the Dead
As engrossing as the interactions between Gleeson and his community are, the most satisfying relationship we find is between Father James and his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) who has just returned from Dublin after having her dreams crushed…and having survived a suicide attempt. The two have a relationship that is filled with hard feelings and past grievances, but is also breathtakingly open and honest. In contrast to the societal kabuki theater that characterizes Father James and his flock, Fiona and her father (who joined the priesthood after his wife/her mother died of a wasting illness) have a direct and mature bond, which allows us to see Father James the man as well as the priest.
Calvary is one part murder mystery, one part community drama, and one part wild west flick. The harsh twangs of steel guitars and anguished cowboy crooning stand in contrast to the lilting Celtic songs that accompany the gorgeous visuals that Ireland naturally provide. The tumble down, old wooden church that Father James preaches at could have come directly for a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. At the end of the day, a bad man is going to ride into town, and our good Father James has to decide how he’s going to face the hombre down. He even procures an antique six-shooter from the local police constable, just in case.
Behold, I Make Everything New
Calvary is a delight, from the wonderful cinematography, excellent acting, inspired sound work, and inventive blending of multiple genres. Brendan Gleeson rightfully received much accolade for his portrayal of Father James, and director John Michael McDonagh (The Guard) gets every last drop of goodness out of the premise he establishes. Everywhere old tropes and common expectations are cleverly inverted or put to new use, making this a film that deserves your attention.