Calvary

What does it mean to be a messenger of God in a godless society, and what role does faith play in our lives outside of offering comfort over our fears of mortality? These are just a few of the difficult questions writer/director John Michael McDonagh explores in Calvary, a bleak yet thoroughly engrossing drama featuring a magnificent performance by Brendan...read more

Reviewed by Jason Buchanan
Rating:

What does it mean to be a messenger of God in a godless society, and what role does faith play in our lives outside of offering comfort over our fears of mortality? These are just a few of the difficult questions writer/director John Michael McDonagh explores in Calvary, a bleak yet thoroughly engrossing drama featuring a magnificent performance by Brendan Gleeson.

Father James (Gleeson) is a good priest. Heís kind, thoughtful, and genuinely concerned about the well-being of the people in his community. And thatís exactly why the tormented soul on the other end of the confessional booth threatens to kill him in just one weekís time. Shaken to the core, the benevolent clergyman nevertheless ignores his superiorís thinly veiled suggestion to report the anonymous threat, and instead selflessly carries on serving the community that seems to despise his very presence.

Meanwhile, as Father Jamesí suicidal daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) retreats to the countryside following a bad breakup, he provides emotional support to her and several locals: philandering wife Veronica (Orla OíRourke), her good-natured husband Jack (Chris OíDowd), her gruff lover Simon (Isaach De Bankole), and an exiled American writer (M. Emmet Walsh) who has taken up residence in the close-knit community also inhabited by atheistic Dr. Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen) and social misfit Milo (Killian Scott). But when the church burns to the ground in the middle of the week, it quickly becomes apparent that the threat against Father James is real, and as he and Father Leary (David Wilmot) ponder the rebuilding of their parish, lonely millionaire Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran) seeks redemption through a large donation. Later, at the request of the aging writer, Father James acquires a gun from kinky police inspector Stanton (Gary Lydon). Will he use the firearm to defend his life, or honor the Fifth Commandment and allow his faith to dictate his ultimate fate?

Its title taken from the name of the site where Christ was crucified, Calvary is an uncompromising portrait of a pious man in an increasingly secular society. In Ireland (as in the U.S.), religion has always played a key role in rural society, and by setting his film in a quiet countryside community, McDonagh explores the contemporary backlash against the Catholic Church on an intimate scale that slyly subverts the historical connection between religion and rural life. By employing the distinctive brand of dark humor he handled so well in The Guard, McDonagh also manages to disarm us early on, playing the sins of the locals for gentle laughs as their disdain for Father James gradually morphs into something truly sinister. Like the moral corrosion that has slowly infected this community, this transition occurs with a subtlety that allows it to slip under our skin before we can recognize it. Itís a genuinely brilliant piece of work thatís made even better by a truly gifted ensemble cast.

At the forefront, of course, is Gleeson. At once worldly, warm, and endearingly good-humored, his Father James is the ideal Catholic priest -- a holy man who readily admits to being judgmental, but whose deep compassion colors his every action. And although we gather, through his conversations with his daughter and Mr. Fitzgerald, that he is no saint, his unguarded honesty and optimism prevent us from seeing him as a mere religious hypocrite. Heís the eye at the center of a raging spiritual storm, and the characters around him are the storm clouds that will test his resolution. Though each brings his or her distinctive rumble of thunder, itís ultimately OíRourke as slinky seductress Veronica and Gillen as the taunting Dr. Harte whose contempt for the clergyman shines like a sharpened dagger. Delivering what is arguably Calvaryís most sinister performance, Gillen will likely leave viewers as rattled as Father James as he delivers a profoundly disturbing and tragic story with a sadistic sneer. Likewise, in a brief yet powerful cameo opposite his real-life father, Domhnall Gleeson tests the resolve of the besieged priest in the role of an incarcerated serial killer hedging eternity on Godís compassion. And as Fiona, the talented Kelly Reilly offers intimate insight into her dadís flaws and motivations in perhaps the filmís most touching and intimate scene.

Decidedly less conventional than McDonagh and Gleesonís previous collaborative effort The Guard (and thatís saying something for a movie that opened with a carful of dead teens and a cop dropping acid), Calvary is also a more mature and challenging work that will no doubt be the topic of intense debate among those who welcome the opportunity to explore the role that faith and organized religion play in our lives. Make no mistake, however: There are no easy answers to be found here, only spiritual and philosophical questions that McDonagh boldly asks us to ponder. If youíre up to that challenge, Calvary is a deeply moving experience.

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