CALVARY. Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Chris O'Dowd, Oria O'Rourke, Killian Scott, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Gary Lydon, and Owen Sharpe. Directed by John Michael McDonagh. Rated MA15+. Restricted. (Strong violence, sexual references and coarse language). 101 min.
This is an Irish drama about a village Parish Priest, Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson). One day, while hearing confession in his local church in County Sligo, Ireland, one of his parishioners tells him that he will kill him in a week's time. The person going to confession was sexually abused by a Catholic Priest for five years as a child, and says that the innocent must suffer for what has been done. He believes that the murder of a good Priest, like Father James, will have more impact than the killing of a bad one. His threat is an act of vengeance for sexual abuse on a Church he judges to be depraved.
Father James is a man who has come late in life to the priesthood; he has experienced a great deal in life; and he is committed deeply to his Faith. Though anxious about what he has heard, instead of trying to sway his intending assassin in the week that follows, he goes about his priestly duties, caring for his flock.
Many of the villagers are largely indifferent, or hostile to his pastoral efforts. The local butcher (Chris O'Dowd) is thought to beat his unfaithful wife (Oria O'Rourke), and Father James finds out that she is being beaten by her lover with whom she continues a relationship. A young man (Killian Scott), looks for ways of venting violence on others and has sought solace in pornography; an atheistic doctor (Aidan Gillen) has engaged in grossly unethical behaviour; a lonely, unhappy, and alcoholic financier (Dylan Moran) wants escape from a life-time of "irregularities"; a police inspector (Gary Lydon) has a penchant for male prostitutes; and an Irish young man (Owen Sharpe) peddles sex to anyone who rents him. Compassionately, Father James believes that none of them "is a lost cause".
It is not long before we realise that Father James is looking after a community of difficult and errant people, who have lost their way. Most of them are unlikeable, and merit being considered as suspects. Father James himself has issues which invite the taunt of hypocrisy. His suicidal daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly) resented her father becoming a Priest after her mother died, and she feels he abandoned her; and he has grappled in the past with the lure of alcohol, which now pushes him to drink one more time.
Father James knows who his would-be killer is, because he heard his voice in the confessional. The viewer is left to surmise who that person might be, as the film moves edgily, and with considerable tension under John Michael McDonagh's taut direction, to its potentially tragic finale. The scope of sinfulness in the village suggests that the film is highlighting the diminishing influence of religion in society today.
A somewhat parochial murder mystery becomes a film that offers astute observations and philosophical reflections on life, death, faith and religion. The film, for example, pits religious faith against the fear of death, analyses the meaning of forgiveness, and explores the nature of sacrifice. Father James is a Christ-like figure, who maintains his Faith in a terrible world, and battles his fear of dying and the temptations placed before him. He has to deal with a world that is closing in darkly around him, and the title of the movie signals clearly where the film intends to go. Echoing the theme of Calvary, the film becomes a celebration of the triumph of goodness and virtue over sin.
Brendan Gleeson's acting is outstanding. He brings stoicism, and dignity to his role, and he communicates fear of death compellingly as the 7 days slip by to the time when his fate will be determined. The film is scripted tightly, though some of the drama is supplied by actors who caricature their roles. McDonagh's direction (like his 2011 "The Guard") is firm and accomplished, and the photography of the Irish landscape is wonderful.
This film deals with obvious unease with religion, and sexual abuse in particular. It cloaks its meaning in an attention-grabbing murder-mystery plot, and underneath that plot it takes deliberate aim at disillusionment with the Catholic Church, and Irish Catholicism. However, its final messages are pointedly religious. If Father James has a conflict of Faith with uncertainty, as he humanly must, we are left in no doubt that Faith can endure and that "the limits of His mercy have not been set".
Peter W Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released July 3rd., 2014