‘Calvary’ is Very Irish, Very Catholic, Very Good

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As an institution, the Catholic Church offers its members absolution from their sins through the sacrament of confession. But as we’ve seen from recent history, the Church itself is not free from sin. Can the failings of the Church be placed upon the lower level members, the simple priests who are good? Calvary, the new film by John Michael McDonagh, looks at the impact of the Church’s failings and its impact in Ireland through the tale of one such priest. The resulting film is a cinematic punch in the gut, a film that will leave you enraptured in the moment and lingering with thoughts well after the credits have rolled.

In a small costal Irish village, Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is the priest of the local Catholic parish. One day, while hearing confesssions, a parishioner tells Father James that he is going to kill him in a week’s time. Raped by a priest as a young child, the confessor wants to exact revenge on the Church by killing one of its good priests. This startling news doesn’t faze Father James, he performs his duties as a priest. Concerned for the welfare of a bruised female parishioner (Orla O’Rourke), Father James visits her husband, a local butcher named Jack (Chris O’Dowd), and her lover, an immigrant from the Ivory Coast, Simon (Isaach De Bankolé). A widower who joined the priesthood following his wife’s death, Father James is soon reunited with his daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), who has recently attempted suicide. Death threats and familial tensions aside, Father James still gives his time to a reclusive writer (M. Emmet Walsh), a constantly drunk materialistic banker, Michael (Dylan Moran), and a convicted cannibalistic child murderer, Freddie (Domhnall Gleeson). Tensions within the town and Father James himself reaches critical mass, as his hard earned sobriety and faith are put to the test.

Calvary taps into a dual resentment currently present in the Irish toward institutions, the Church and banking. Ireland was experiencing an economic boom prior to the Great Recession of 2008 and plummeted into one of the worst slumps within the Euro Zone. After attempting to purchase absolution, as the Church used to allow, the excessively wealthy banker remarks, “I feel I ought to feel guilty.” Similar to Ireland’s diminished financial status, the once mighty Church is now the subject of scorn and derision. Much in the way that his savior sacrificed himself for the sins of humanity, Father James is being punished for the sins of the Catholic Church.

Brendan Gleeson gives one of the finest performances of his career, which is quite remarkable considering he’s never been bad in anything. I fear that this film is coming out at the wrong time of year for Gleeson to get the Oscar consideration that he very well deserves. This is the kind of film that is filled with excellent acting work, but Gleeson is the film’s heart and soul. He gives Father James the blend of compassion, sadness, and an undercurrent of anger.

Whereas McDonagh’s previous effort, 2011’s The Guard, was a comedy that was unafraid to venture into heavy dramatic territory, Calvary is a heavy drama full of a dry Irish wit. McDonagh pulls off a tight rope act as the film takes you from gut-busting laughter to edge of your seat tension to the verge of tears. The growing body of work between John Michael and his brother, Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), show a pair of siblings that are making smart, adult-themed films that are entertaining and speak of larger themes. Their films are bitter pills with enough humor sugarcoated throughout that makes their darker overtones easier to digest.

More than anything, Calvary is an exploration weighing whether the faults of an institution like the Catholic Church negates the good that those in its employ do. For all its drama and commentary on Catholicism and contemporary Ireland, Calvary has moments of meta-commentary, characters refer to themselves as characters and talk about 3rd act revelations. Like his brother, John Michael McDonagh has proven himself to be a force within cinema. Calvary may speak best to those of Irish-Catholic descent, but I feel that there’s enough depth to the material that its themes are universal – anger and resentment drown us all while forgiveness lifts us. Smart and heartfelt, Calvary is one of the best films of the year.

 

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