Movie review: ‘Calvary’ — a fascinating and heartbreaking filmMovie Review Thursday, August 14th, 2014
I cannot pretend to be an expert on Catholicism, let alone Irish Catholicism. My entire experience of the Catholic Church has been created by history classes I took more than 20 years ago, a few masses I attended out of curiosity and a large number of movies about priests and nuns, which run the gamut from the happy go lucky habits of Sister Act to the evil priests in Angels & Demons to the really, really evil nuns in Philomena. It’s pretty rare, for a number of reasons, to see a pro-Catholic movie, especially nothing like the Oscar-winning A Man for All Seasons, which told the story of how Thomas More’s refusal to accept Henry VIII’s break from the Church led to his beheading. But John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary comes close to depicting positive Catholicism, if not a positive church. Calvary depicts the week in the life of a truly good priest, played by the great Brendan Gleeson, a man who takes the sacraments and their meanings seriously, who always tries to do the right thing, even to the point of mimicking Jesus at his most holy. This probably sounds incredibly dreary or pedantic, but the film is fascinating, often entertaining, and finally heartbreaking.
Gleeson is perfectly cast and perfectly performs Father James, a middle-aged parish priest in a small town in Sligo, Ireland. He entered the priesthood late in life, after he had a daughter and after his wife died. He’s a bear of a man, tall and rotund, with a red and gray beard to match is hair. He’s also witty and ironic and has trouble suffering fools, the parish’s other priest Father Leary (David Wilmot). The film and the week begins with James taking confession from a man who tells him that he had been raped constantly by a priest for five years when he was a child. The man then tells James that he’s going to kill him in a week because killing a good priest makes more of a statement than killing a bad one. This is an odd logic, but the anger and the trauma of the abuse creates an odd logic. While James knows who the future killer is, he doesn’t reveal it to the audience or to his barely caring bishop.
Instead, James goes through the week, ministering to the motley crew of his parishioners and spending time with his visiting daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), who is recovering from a suicide attempt. He tries to deal with the failed marriage between Veronica and Jack Brennan (Orla O’Rourke and Chris O’Dowd), which has led to bruises on her face, which came either from Jack or her lover, an African immigrant named Simin (Isaach De Bankolé). An aging American writer (M. Emmet Walsh) is trying to finish a novel while contemplating suicide. A rich drunk (Dylan Moran) pesters James while wallowing in his misery and his money; an emotionally stunted young man (Killian Scott) tells James that he’s developed murderous fantasies about women because he can’t get laid and a gay prostitute (Owen Sharpe) with a fake Bronx accent flirts with James just to get a rise out of him; he fails. Aiden Gillen plays a cynical, atheist doctor who provides gallows humor when James is at the hospital to minister last rights.
As the week progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that James is bearing the brunt of the anger against the Church for things he had nothing to do with. That he accepts the anger and does his best to push his parishioners and other townspeople to do the right and the good things makes James rather heroic. He gets angry, he fails often, but even when it seems as if he’s going to run away from it all, he decides to do [spoiler!] what Jesus did at Calvary, and become the repository of the town’s sins in order for them to be saved. It’s an upsetting, yet oddly beautiful ending to a moving, funny, profound film.
Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh
Starring Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly and Chris O’Dowd
Opens at Landmark Hillcrest on August 15
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