"Calvary's" Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is a good priest who is faced with sinister and troubling circumstances brought about by a mysterious member of his parish.
What it's about:
The good, well-liked Catholic priest (Brendan Gleeson) of a small town in Ireland is marked for death by a disturbed congregant, who swears to make him pay for the entirely unrelated actions of a paedophilic priest who abused him as a child. With what may be one week left to live, the priest is forced to confront an increasingly belligerent community and a daughter who had just attempted to end her own life, all the while being racked by doubts about his faith, about his role as a Catholic priest and about the decision in his life leading that lead him up to that point.
What we thought:
John Michael McDonagh blasted on to the scene a couple of years with the Guard, a brilliant, blackly comic crime-film that boasted what may have well been a then-career-best performance by its star, Brendan Gleeson. Unlike so many promising new directors, however, McDonagh has not fallen prey to the “sophomore slump” and has delivered a film that not only builds on the promise of the Guard but takes the kind of giant leap forward that most filmmakers take years to so much as attempt.
While the Guard was an exhilarating, bitingly funny piece of sharp entertainment, McDonagh sets his sights much higher with Calvary. Quite aside for its stunningly moody cinematography, pitch perfect performances and dialogue so sharp you could cut yourself on it, Calvary is a deep, multi-layered work of art with plenty to say and a personal axe or two to grind. It's also a film steeped in Catholicism but with its piercing questions about faith, about the nature of sin, about personal responsibility and, most damningly, about the evils perpetrated by the Catholic Church and those who supposedly represent it, it is as far away from those cheesy Church-approved “Faith-based films” as it is possible to be.
There's a very real sense that Calvary is an incredibly personal film for its director, as you can almost feel his personal struggle with the monolith that is Catholicism coming through in every frame of the film. And yet, it's a struggle that is neither solipsistic, nor particularly alienating to non-Catholics.
Being Jewish, I don't know much about the Catholic faith, its mythology and its dogma beyond what is shown in the media and/ or is part of general knowledge, so I missed, for example, the significance of the title Calvary (hint: it's not “cavalry” misspelled) and I certainly never caught on that the twelve supporting characters in the film represent the twelve apostles. However, none of this took away from my experience of watching the film. Rather, learning about this stuff later only added to what was already a mind-blowing cinematic experience.
That it's pretty much a perfectly made film on every level is indeed part of its unqualified success, to be sure, but what makes it more than simply an excellent film; what made it stick with me days after seeing it, was its powerful emotional core and fully functioning brain that were, for all intents and purposes, embodied in the imposing form of Brendan Gleeson and his well-intentioned, good-hearted but endlessly complex character. Glesson is excellent in Calvary in the same way that water is wet: obviously and overwhelmingly so.
Every expression he makes and every word he utters speaks volumes about his character, about the underlying struggles that he's dealing with and even about the themes that lie at the heart of the film. McDonagh has claimed that his character goes through the five stages of grief in the film (though not in the usual order) but judging by Gleeson's performance, there seem to be twenty to twenty-five steps to the process that none of us knew about. He's in very nearly every scene in the film and though he has plenty of exceptional support from an often quite unlikely cast (Dylan Moran as a depressed, nihilistic banker, Domnhall Gleeson as a Lector-like serial killer), each of whom we get to meet as he goes about his business trying to positively affect the lives of his parishioners, Calvary is never anything but his film.
I suppose the usual art-house warnings should apply: Calvary is for discerning viewers only who can appreciate a slow pace, a moody atmosphere, a pitch-black sense of humour and more allegories and allusions than are possible to catch in a single viewing but, honestly, if you don't get this film, its your problem, not the film's. Calvary is, in no uncertain terms, a richly rewarding, near-perfect masterpiece that reminds us of the true power of cinema to move us, to challenge us and to deeply affect us. And you don't have to be Catholic to see that.
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