Catholicism to the Southern Irish is simply a part of life. Every third person is a priest or was an altar boy or something like that. But as the world gets more cynical, and the clergy become less trustworthy, the reliance on the church begins to wain, even in a devout place like the Emerald Isle. It must, then, be even more difficult to be a priest now, when people feel they don’t really need you. It’s this idea that permeates John Michael McDonagh’s new film Calvary, a tragic dark comedy about the loss of faith in many things and an allusion to the death of the Old World religion. It features an impressive cast and a tour de force central performance from Brendan Gleeson.
We’ve seen stories like this before, but there haven’t been any with as bleak an outlook as this one. The main character is not only met with people who don’t seem to need his advice or help anymore, but who openly deride him and mock his faith. Paired with the gorgeous and scenic vistas of western Ireland in the summertime, the film deals with all kinds of casual sinning that people feel they need to confess, but don’t really care that they’re doing. As Gleeson’s character says at one point, “For a lot of people, faith is just the fear of death; take away the fear, it’s easy to lose faith.”
The film is a week in the life of Father James (Gleeson), a realist priest in the seaside town of Sligo in the west of Ireland. The opening shot of the movie is Father taking confession from someone (we don’t know who until the end) who claims to have been abused by a priest daily when he was a child. Father James doesn’t know how to respond. The priest that is responsible died years ago, and him being killed wouldn’t have helped anything anyway. No, the confessor decides he’s going to kill Father James, because he’s done nothing wrong and is a good man. A week from Sunday on the beach, this person will kill the innocent priest.
That’s the beginning of the movie; our main character has a ticking clock. He goes to his higher-up clergyman who says he ought to go to the police, but Father James doesn’t know if he should. He’s conflicted, throughout. He tries to do right by the people in his town, but will it even matter if this person is just going to kill him anyway?
Father James talks to many members of the community throughout the week, including a man (Chris O’Dowd) who may or may not have hit his wife (Orla O’Rourke) because she’s been, quite openly, seeing an immigrant from the Ivory Coast (Isaach De Bankole); a very wealthy and arrogant man (Dylan Moran) whose wife and children have left him and he wants to make amends but doesn’t really care; a strange young man (Killian Scott) who just wants to get laid but doesn’t know how to do it so contemplates joining the army; and a cynical atheist doctor (Aidan Gillen) who openly flaunts his derision of the Catholic Church.
As though that weren’t enough for him to deal with, Father James has a daughter (he was once married, his wife died, he joined the priesthood) who recently tried to kill herself because of a failed romantic relationship. Kelly Reilly plays the daughter, someone who desperately needs paternal guidance and the ability to forgive her father for his alcoholism and running away to the church, but also spiritual guidance in her life. There’s a very lovely scene where they have their first real heart-to-heart in the confessional booth, illustrating the barrier of both the partition and the priesthood between the two.
As the week progresses, Father James becomes more and more despondent not only because of the prospect of his impending death, but because his parish is getting ever-nastier toward him and the idea of the clergy. His fellow priest, Father Leary (David Wilmot) is completely naive and oblivious to all of this and represents the people simply ignoring the atrocities carried out by the Church and people’s distrust thereof. Father James understands he just doesn’t know how to help.
The movie hangs on the central performance of Gleeson, which is probably the best in the actor’s already wonderful career. The trouble and burden associated with his chosen vocation is on his face throughout. We do get the sense that he is happy to have chosen the priesthood and gotten the opportunity to help people, but he seems unsure of how to do that in the times in which we live. He’s in almost 100% of the scenes in the film and he’s as exciting at the end of the movie as he is at the beginning.
While only his second feature as writer-director, following 2011’s The Guard, John Michael McDonagh has established himself as an amazingly deep, funny, and twisted filmmaker. The brother of award-winning playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh, John Michael has the same sense of dark humor but doesn’t employ the over-the-top violence in nearly the same way. Everything is melancholy in Calvary, even the more outwardly funny lines or moments. Ultimately, this is a very tragic film and one that ends with a gut punch that will stay with you for days after.
One of the best films of the year, Calvary is in limited release beginning August 1st and will expand nationwide throughout the next few months. Track it down if you get the chance; it’s a very rewarding film.