Talking Movies

April 10, 2014

Calvary

John Michael McDonagh and Brendan Gleeson follow up The Guard with an episodic metaphysical drama punctuated by blackly comic diversions.

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Fr James (Brendan Gleeson) hears the confession of a parishioner who was sexually abused as a child by a priest. Except this isn’t a confession – the unseen parishioner informs James that he will kill him on their beach in one week: ‘Killing a priest on a Sunday. That’ll be a good one.’ James knows the identity of the parishioner, but, despite the flawless logic of his Bishop (David McSavage) that if no confession was made the seal of the confessional lapses, he will not reveal the identity of his designated assassin. Instead he goes about his pastoral duties, attempting to spiritually salve wife-beating butcher Jack (Chris O’Dowd), cynical atheist doctor Frank (Aidan Gillen), ailing American novelist Gerald (M Emmet Walsh), and jaded ex-financier Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran); none of whom want his counsel. One person who badly needs him though is his visiting suicidal London-Irish daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly). James became a priest after his wife’s death, leaving Fiona feeling abandoned…

Calvary is fantastically well acted by a truly impressive Irish ensemble, but is far removed from The Guard. There are dementedly funny scenes, like misfit Milo (Killian Scott) trying to convince James that wanting to kill people really badly would be a plus for being accepted into the army – ‘like an engineering degree’. But there are many more scenes addressing knotty theological concepts of fate, free will, evil, and forgiveness: a prime example being James’ fraught encounter with jailed cannibal serial killer Freddie (Domhnall Gleeson). I haven’t seen so many ideas thrown at the screen since I Heart Huckabees, but I’m unsure what McDonagh’s larger purpose is. Fr James, like Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory whiskey priest, is being shepherded towards his own squalid Calvary. But Greene’s imitation of Christ drew attention to the potential for holiness in a flawed man; James is marked for death because of his virtue – a good man expiating the sins of many.

But… this reading is undermined by a jaw-dropping scene where an irate stranger tars James with the general brush of ‘molesting cleric’, shocking the audience who’ve seen his deep compassion. The assassin’s wish to punish a good priest for the misdeeds of bad priests will be utterly lost, because outside their community everyone will assume James was a bad priest. But this may be deliberate. James seems at times to be an argument for married clergy, witness his comforting of newly-widowed Frenchwoman Teresa (Marie-Josee Croze), but then his daughter insists he put God above family. Refn’s DP Larry Smith captures the Sligo landscape to amazing effect, especially Ben Bulben – almost creating an Eden. But this is Eden where Sin has been banished as a concept. Veronica (Orla O’Rourke) provokes James with her public promiscuity, her lover Simon (Isaach De Bankole) distinguishes between believing in God and acting morally, and James himself tells Fiona too much stress has been laid on sin. James thinks forgiveness need emphasising, but publican Brendan (Pat Shortt), who now espouses Buddhism, beats the bebuddha out of people with a baseball bat – with no guilt; sin is passé, and forgiveness requires sin.

Calvary might deserve four stars. I don’t know. It’s more ambitious than nearly any other Irish film, but it outsmarted me; I feel I need to do extensive reading in Jean Amery and Fyodor Dostoevsky to apprehend McDonagh’s quicksilver.

3.5/5

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