With its story of a good priest getting ready to meet his maker, John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary is putting the Catholic Church on trial.
Diary Of A Country Priest by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
After tackling police corruption in his quirky, black-comedy debut The Guard (the most successful home-grown film at the Irish box office), John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary takes on the Catholic Church in the wake of controversy surrounding a slew of paedophile priests. Telling the story of an abused child, who (now a man) threatens in the confessional box to kill a Good Priest in lieu of the Bad Priest who molested him, now dead. With Brendan Gleeson in the starring role, Father James Lavelle is an affable pastor – worldly, wise and a widower, and like his role as Sergeant Gerry Boyle in The Guard, surrounded by a who’s who of cartoon characters – from Dylan Moran’s awkward aristocrat and Aidan Gillen’s devilish doctor to Chris O’Dowd’s black-tempered butcher. But as the priest uncovers the murderer in his midst, Calvary gives us a very Irish kind of whodunit.
In a small town in County Sligo, Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is hearing confession when a man who was raped by a priest at the age of seven threatens to take revenge on the Catholic Church by killing him in a week’s time. Bound by the seal of the confessional, Father Lavelle tries to make peace with himself and the community, unable to confront the man he knows will kill him. But as he carries out his pastoral rounds in an irreligious climate of domestic violence, arson and drug abuse, he comes face to face with a litany of wrongdoers – coke-snorting, cynical doctor Frank (Aidan Gillen), angry, cheated butcher Jack (Chris O’Dowd) and boorish, eccentric banker Michael (Dylan Moran). He’s saved only from the ugly face of humanity by his suicidal daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) as they talk things through and take walks through the Irish countryside. Father James contemplates leaving, but as the ill-fated day approaches, he decides to stay and accept his date with death.
Opening with a quote from Saint Augustine, “Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned”, Calvary is a very modern tale of human nature, redemption and forgiveness. We meet the whole spectrum of humanity in this rural Irish community – this bastion of everyday morality overflowing like Sodom with adultery, violence, greed and selfishness. But Calvary is also the very personal journey of one holy man walking his via dolorosa into the valley of the shadow of death, as we follow in Father James’s footsteps as he tries to make peace with his family and community and come to terms with his imminent death. Calvary works due, in no small measure, to the robust performance from Brendan Gleeson, a likeable man of the cloth who brings a no-nonsense reason to faith. But also featuring a delicate performance from Kelly Reilly as his daughter Fiona, it’s the conversations between father and daughter that provide many of the film’s strongest moments.
With its gallows humour and its post-modern self-references, such as Aidan Gillen’s goblin-like Frank complaining that there are no good lines for the clichéd role of the atheistic doctor, Calvary gives scripted hyperbole a short shrift, bursting every bubble of possible pretentiousness with acerbic matter-of-factness – such as the elderly American novelist who states “My whole life is an affectation” to which the laconic priest replies “That sounds like one of those lines that are suppose to be witty, but don’t actually mean anything.” And with the shockingly explicit dialogue of the film’s opening dialogue in the confessional box and its visual imagery of a gun-toting priest, John Michael McDonagh’s film is deliberately provocative. But while Calvary aims for some metaphysical gravity in the final reel, as Father James bemoans “There’s too much talk about sins, and not enough of virtues” and with Fiona visiting her father’s killer in prison, Calvary struggles tonally to move from comedy to tragedy.
For a film about forgiveness, John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary is a curious beast, punishing the Church and its good priest protagonist with death while offering redemption to its antagonist Jack, both murderer and abuse victim. Its Sligo community is a hotbed of crime, cynicism and sin where every man is a potential would-be-killer and its priest is a Christ-like scapegoat taking on the sins of the world. It’s Passion remodelled as comedy, and seems lightweight and callow compared to Dietrich Brüggemann’s similarly themed Kreuzweg. But with its rumbling panoramas of the Irish landscape and its delicate moments of tenderness, Calvary marks the stations of a very Celtic cross that Ireland has still to bear.
Calvary is released on 11th April 2014 in the UK