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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Review: Calvary (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson

In the opening scene of John Michael McDonagh's Calvary a man enters the confessional and informs the film's protagonist, Father James (Brendan Gleeson), that he's going to murder him the following Sunday. It isn't because James has done anything wrong; on the contrary it's precisely because he's a "good" priest that the man is going to take his life. Killing a bad priest would accomplish nothing, he reasons, but killing a good priest would send a message - besides, the specific priest who abused him is already dead. Calvary then follows James for the next seven days as he has encounters with various people in the village, some of whom may be the man who intends to kill him, all of whom have mortality on their mind, though none are marching towards their ends with as much certainty as James. While films about topics as heated as the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandals are, perhaps, destined to be divisive, McDonagh's carefully crafted drama handles the subject with intelligence and sensitivity.

Father James knows as soon as he hears the voice in the confessional who it is who has made the threat against him, though when he visits the Bishop (David McSavage) to seek advice he expresses a reluctance to go to the police because he says he can't be sure whether the threat is really serious. He makes the rounds in the village, visiting with its troubled residents, starting with Veronica (Orla O'Rourke), whom James' fellow priest Father Leary (David Wilmot) believes is being beaten by her husband, Jack (Chris O'Dowd). Veronica rejects James' attempts to counsel her and, when questioned, Jack insists that whatever bruises Veronica has have come courtesy of her lover, Simon (Isaach de Bankole). For his part, Simon informs James that it isn't any of his business but that what occurs between him and Veronica is consensual, suggesting that if she likes to be roughed up it's a means of assuaging the Catholic guilt that is so firmly embedded in her that it's become part of her DNA. Others James tries to counsel include Milo (Killian Scott), a young man who confesses to him that he's started to hate women because of his lack of a sex life and that he's thinking of joining the army in order to find somewhere to channel his feelings of violent aggression; a writer (M. Emmet Walsh) who is nearing the end of his life and wishes to set the terms of his exit; Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), a wealthy man whose life is seemingly devoid of meaning and who wants to buy redemption for his sins by giving money to the church; Freddie Joyce (Domhnall Gleeson), a former resident of the village now serving a life sentence for multiple murders; and Frank (Aidan Gillen), a doctor and avowed Atheist.

James also has a daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), with whom he has a warm relationship even though, as she later reveals to him, she felt that she lost two parents after her mother died and James subsequently entered the priesthood. Fiona has come to the village to visit with her father following a failed suicide attempt, and he opts not to inform her that a threat has been made against his life, even after the seriousness of that threat is made apparent when the church is set on fire. The curious thing about James' situation is that no one in the village seems to hate or even really dislike him specifically, but they can't separate him from an institution which, to varying degrees, has caused them pain, suffering, and disillusionment. When they see him in his vestments, it's almost like they can't help themselves from antagonizing him, mocking him, and trying to humiliate him, punishing him because they are powerless to punish the institution that - despite his protestations to the contrary - he represents. In one of the film's most affecting scenes, James is walking down the road and encounters a young girl on her way to the beach. They strike up a conversation which comes to an abrupt end when the girl's father pulls up in his car, demands she get in, and accusingly asks James what he was saying to her. Because we've gotten to know James and know that he's a good man, we feel for him in this moment that causes him obvious pain and distress, but at the same time, we can understand where the father is coming from because stories about abuses committed by priests are so widespread. James is not merely a man, but the local symbol for the church as a whole, and because of that someone is going to try to kill him - and because of that, he may allow himself to be killed and die as a form of substitutionary atonement.

Calvary isn't subtle about the fact that it is equating Father James with Jesus Christ, using its title to make the first correlation between the two. McDonagh has stated in interviews that the story is structured according to the stages of grief, but there also seems to be some credence to the idea that it's playing out its own version of the stations of the cross, though I'm not familiar enough with the specifics of the stations to be able to pick them out if they are, in fact, there. There is also some discussion online that the characters that Father James comes into conflict with represent the seven deadly sins, which also seems plausible, with Veronica and Simon representing Lust, Michael Fitzgerald representing Greed, Freddie Joyce (who engaged in cannibalism as part of his murder ritual) representing Gluttony, Milo representing Envy, Frank (so proud of the fact that he isn't Catholic that he finds a way to work the fact that he's an Atheist into pretty much every conversation he has) representing Pride, Father Leary (a nice enough man, but useless and lacking in anything as strenuous as conviction) representing Sloth, and the would-be killer representing Wrath. I suspect that the more familiarity a viewer has with Catholicism, the richer Calvary will seem on a thematic level, but the story is so compellingly told that it works regardless of how much knowledge you bring to it.

McDonagh's screenplay is skillfully crafted in order to weave its thematic elements into the narrative in a way that seems unobtrusive and keeps the film accessible. On a surface level Calvary works just as a straight character drama about a man who finds himself the focal point of a town's rage and tries to negotiate the precarious position he has found himself in. Scratch the surface only slightly, and it’s a story that finds a balance between acknowledging and criticizing the failings and corruption of the Catholic Church while also insisting that even in that morass there remain people who want to be forces for good. Father James, though a flawed man, is a force for good, and Gleeson’s performance is as close to perfect as it gets – though I’m hard pressed to think of a performance he’s given that was anything less than good. Calvary is the second entry in a proposed trilogy from McDonagh and Gleeson (the first being The Guard) and if the final film is as powerful and thought-provoking as this one, it will be a very good movie indeed.

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