Robert Tiemstra ‘16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
“There’s no point in killin’ a bad priest. But killin’ a good one, that’d be a shock.”
Ireland was made to be filmed. If the rolling hillsides and barren green mountains in Calvary don’t convince you of that, the delicious characters will. With all their films, the McDonagh Brothers (Martin & John Michael) have claimed their own realm within Irish cinema where the world is dark, cruel, soulful, and deeply, blackly comic.
A movie like Calvary is for people who are ready to jump from soul-searching tenderness to bitingly witty gallows humor in a moment, a triumphant celebration of all things that tie the quaint and the bleak together.
This film opens on the familiar face of Brendan Gleeson (Mad-Eye Moody from Harry Potter, and the star of John Michael McDonagh’s previous film, The Guard), this time sitting inside a confessional in the robes of a priest. He occupies the very heart of this film as Father James Lavelle, an occasionally crass and judgmental man, but an undeniably honest and caring one.
In this opening scene, a voice at the other side of the confessional condemns him to death as a sort of revenge for suffering sexual abuse at the hands of a priest. According to the mysterious figure in the other side of the confessional, killing a good priest is a much stronger statement than killing a bad one ever could be. The rest of the film chronicles the seven days leading up to the date the voice condemned Father James to die, and follows his interactions with the people of his small Irish town.
On paper, this is a very simple premise, but it comes with a devilish caveat. Father James knows who his potential murderer is, but the audience is deliberately kept in the dark. We’re left to wonder who it is. Is it Aiden Gillen’s cynical doctor? Chris O’Dowd’s victimized husband? Killian Scott’s desperately angst-filled teenager? Pat Shortt’s guilty millionaire? This is not intended as a whodunit style mystery, but rather as a thematic point: everyone in this town is suitably mean-spirited or cruel enough to be the one who wants to kill Father James. He is the moral center in an immoral world.
All of this sounds downright depressing when described, but McDonagh is smart enough to fill this script with tenderness through Father James’ relationship with his daughter Fiona, played by Kelly Reilly, and some bitterly dark comedy. This film approaches touchy issues such as death and adultery from every angle possible–from the existential, to the ironic. Aidan Gillen is key here as Doctor Harte, who is quite upfront about his own cynicism, “The atheist doctor. I know, it is a cliché role to play. All fatalism and gallows humor.”
There is a subtle grace that defines cinematographer Larry Smith’s work on Calvary. It refrains from some of the more showy visual gimmicks that can plague independent films, instead drawing from the landscape and characters to ground its images. Visually, Father James cuts a striking figure wearing a completely black robe against the greens and browns of the Irish countryside. In its visual elements, this is a subtly crafted piece of work, and the frame feels like a part of the land itself.
This film is founded on the conceit that the vast majority of it will be spinning its wheels waiting for the climactic event on Sunday to happen, but John Michael McDonagh’s tendency to linger on things that may not seem important (a scene with a recently widowed woman in a chapel comes to mind) make this film stand tall over other slice-of-life dramas. We see the toll the death threat is taking on James as the film unfolds, but he has no one to confess to. Brendan Gleeson laces his character with subtext and melancholy, but without being depressing to be around. By the end of the film you will want Father James to survive his predicted encounter with death.
At the end of the day, what does this all account for thematically? There are many films that have attempted the same level of stark drama and dark comedy but felt like they were simply much ado about nothing. What makes Calvary truly special is how honest it is about Catholicism in a modern context. While you do not have to be a religious person to see this film, it may be the best film about faith in a growingly cynical world.
Dropping Father James in the middle of a world where he doesn’t fit makes us wonder about what faith really means. By the end, this is a film that will have atheists in the audience respect Gleeson’s priest because of his firm moral integrity. There are values in faith that can make a person as good as Father James, but faults in religious organizations that create monsters like the various psychopaths and burgeoning sociopaths seen in the film (yes, there are more than one. This was written by a McDonagh after all).
In short, Calvary works. It works as drama, it works as comedy, it works as a thoughtful reflection on faith in a faithless world. It just works. This is easily one of the best films of the year so far.
Overall Grade: A+