Calvary (2014)

calvaryDirector: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Kelly Reilly and Pat Shortt
★★★★ (out of five)

“I FIRST tasted semen when I was seven years old,” are the opening words of dialogue in John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary. We hear them from an anonymous voice directed to a priest in a darkened church confessional.

The man then tells the priest, Father James (Brendan Gleeson) that he will kill him, “a week on Sunday,” in an abused victim’s revenge upon a ‘depraved’ Catholic Church. “I’ll give you enough time to put your house in order,” he promises.

The countdown then begins and we see Father James going about his pastoral duties. He is a good priest and even though he knows who the voice belongs to (unlike the audience) he neither runs away or calls in the Police.

The flock to which he tends is a remote coastal community. On the whole they are an unlikeable bunch. Almost any of them could be the one threatening murder. Many seem to take delight in trying to torment Father James, blaming him personally for anything the Catholic Church has done wrong down the centuries. Few seem to recognise the good work he tries to do (although there are perhaps three – I counted!).

Well known Irish comedians Dylan Moran, Chris O’Dowd and Pat Shortt play characters that are very unlikeable but also compelling.

Aidan Gillen is noteworthy as the cynical, cocaine-snorting, local Doctor: “Finished with all your gobbledigook?” he asks Fr. James after he’s administered the last rites to a dying man.

The background to this story is the declining status of the clergy as scandal after scandal has hit the Catholic Church. It would have been easy to film a different, less subtle, film with the Priest as villain. McDonagh didn’t make an easy film. Instead he made a thought-provoking film where we wonder if a genuine believer like Fr. James could renew faith or if the forces ranged against him are too strong. Fr. James is witty and thoughtful, worldly wise yet spiritual – far from a caricature. Fr. James is like Marshal Will Kane in High Noon (1952) fighting for right while the disinterested, cynical townsfolk leave him to it.

Gleeson who famously starred in McDonagh’s debut feature The Guard (2011), as Sergeant Gerry Boyle, gives a brilliant performance as an idealist in a cynical world clinging to a faith that is challenged at every turn.

Calvary is a film that raises serious philosophical and ethical questions. That makes it sound boring but it is anything but. To pull off a film that can raise these issues and yet tell a compelling story is a real work of art.

Reviewed by Pat Harrington

 

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