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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October 11, 2011

A Film with me in it

A Film with me in it has finally been released on DVD, three years after its limited cinema release, so allow me to both praise it to the skies and urge you to buy it.

A Film with me in it is quite simply one of the best Irish films ever made. It’s a jet-black comedy which sees two fine stand-up comedians blunder their way thru a scenario of escalating disastrousness that could have been written by Joe Orton and which makes you laugh at really horrible things. Set in a crumbling Georgian building which has been appallingly converted into the very worst flat in Dublin it follows the misadventures of the morose Mark Doherty (estranged from his live-in girlfriend Amy Huberman and caring for his recently disabled brother David O’Doherty) and his friend Dylan Moran (a scriptwriter who hasn’t written anything but IOUs for quite some time) as they battle their shiftless landlord Keith Allen and try to cope with a series of disastrous but inescapably funny lethal accidents.

Dylan Moran’s sardonic comedy persona finds a perfect leading film role outlet in the part of heroically self-deluding alcoholic writer/director/waiter Pierce. His ramble around the word ‘alcoholic’ at an AA meeting, “My name is Pierce and I am a …. writer/director, and waiter”, is only one of many priceless moments. Moran also gives a fantastic reaction to a bloody accident, “Did, did, did you do a murder?”, devises a series of increasingly ludicrous attempts to avoid a charge of murder, “I have another plan, it involves beards and Morocco”, and powers an amazing cameo where an unexpected actor appears and has his preciousness completely exploded by dint of merciless mockery from Moran. Co-writer Mark Doherty’s blank deadpan opposite all of this mugging from Moran is Leslie Nielsen-esque in its ability to keep the nonsense grounded.

Compiling my top films of the year in 2008 for my own private film awards, as I’ve done annually since 2003, I placed A Film with me in it just outside the Top 10. But coming 11th only confirmed what an extraordinary year it had been for Irish cinema. Declan Kiberd’s Irish Classics noted that Daniel Corkery had propounded a ridiculously purist doctrine. ‘The English language, great as it is, can no more throw up an Irish Literature than it can an Indian literature’, opined Corkery who went further and put forward an influential and rigid formula Kiberd summarises thus, to qualify as Irish, “literature must treat of three themes: religion, nation, and land. Joyce had fled those nets as tyrannies, yet by treating them in his books, he did at least concede their importance”.

2008 saw Irish cinema break free of that transmogrified Corkery/Joyce need to make every film a pompous state of the nation sermon on Dev’s Ireland, the IRA or the land hunger, and/or a box-ticking journey through a number of expected clichés in order to appeal to Irish-American audience expectations, and instead just make films. The result saw entertaining, magical, demented, and insightful films (In Bruges, A Film with me in it, Hunger, Kisses) take 2 of the top 3 places and 4 of the top 12 in my awards. Now you can judge for yourself.

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