CALVARY: A Whip-Smart, 21st-Century Mystery Play
by Tim Sika
In what may very well prove to be the most chilling and second-to-none opening of any film released this year, an Irish Catholic priest is hearing a parishioner’s confession in his county church.
Bearing a patently tortured soul, the person on the other end of the confessional divulges to Father James Labelle (a note-perfect and brilliant Brendan Gleason) the sexual abuse he suffered as a child at the hand of his (surprise) former parish priest (“I first tasted semen when I was seven years old … I was raped by this same priest orally and anally every other day for five years … I bled a terrible amount”).
And then matter-of-factly informs Lavelle: “I’m going to kill you, Father.”
He reasons that the murder of a “good” priest would do more pronounced harm to an unrepentant church (responsible for centuries of sexual child abuse) than killing a “bad” priest would. Besides, his offender—unpunished, unaccountable, and presumably transferred to another parish where his crimes continued un-prosecuted and unabated—had long since gone to his reward anyway.
Billy Wilder and Robert Wise are probably grinning in their graves.
Thus begins writer / director John Michael (The Guard ) McDonagh’s Calvary , an arrestingly dense, darkly comic, occasionally detached but demanding-to-be-revisited mixture of a week-in-the-life of an Irish parish priest tending to his angst-ridden Catholic flock; a whodunit (or rather, who’s about to do it); and meditation on Life’s Big Themes.
It’s all pretty terrific grist-for-the-mind stuff—a sort of contemporary Irish “A Man For All Seasons” for the religious and atheist alike—and a kind of slow-burning 21st century mystery play packed with drama, suspense and loads of Irish Catholic guilt.
Calvary is also somewhat unique in that we witness its protagonist priest strive to do his best and struggling as much as—if not more than—those in his parish whom he endeavors to serve.
The plethora of personalities include Lavelle’s suicidal daughter from a former marriage, a lonely millionaire, a local butcher who may or may not be beating his wife, an atheistic doctor and several others. And in contrast to a film like David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter , Calvary also refreshingly dramatizes the resentment this group of Irish Catholic parishioners harbor for a church—and its representative—who may or may not be providing them with the kind of spiritual help they actually need, and with whose lives they may, in fact, be interfering.
And while a good case can be made for Calvary being the most provocative film released this year—it’s definitely a must-see—caveats and a handful of reservations abound. For one, although there is something exquisitely, admirably and even artfully writer-ly about Calvary —McDonagh’s technique is thorough and masterful—it tends to act as a kind of double-edged sword, both serving and hindering the film’s subject matter and the telling of its story.
While there’s little doubt that this is one helluva constructed screenplay with every character necessary from a thematic standpoint, the screenplay’s symbolic allusions play a bit too obvious (Christ dying on Calvary for the sins of the world surrounded by one repentant and unrepentant criminal—the movie opens with a quote attributable to St. Augustine: “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned”). The script’s tackling of weighty existential issues like suicide and responsibility also feels a bit too careworn insinuating itself in ways that make you aware these Themes are being introduced.
But to Calvary ’s undying credit, its summation (culminating in a haunting, visual finale ultimo sequence impossible to shake or forget and one which skillfully emerges organically from the words) makes an indelible impression, leaving the viewer with that sought after ambiguity most lovers of intelligent cinema crave but very seldom get in their ongoing search for quality film fare.
And even though Calvary sometimes plays too much like an apologia for the Catholic Church (how could it not, given McDonagh’s background and cultural immersion?) it is, at its best, a whip-smart, cinematic theater piece—a thoughtful, rigorously argued examination of religious belief, forgiveness, cause and effect, personal and institutional culpability, whose ambitions in tandem with its flaws, quietly and inevitably lurch it towards being one of the best films of this—or any—year.
And that final scene! It will either make you want to empathize with a highly flawed Church doing its utmost best to shed Light onto a dark and seemingly pointless world through a highly flawed leadership (a Lutheran friend said it made him want to go to Mass), or with one of Calvary ’s more conflicted characters, who in a single, defiant act of absolute self-justification burns the local church to an irretrievable cinder.
Tim Sika is the host, producer of Celluloid Dreams: The Movie Show; director of the Camera Cinema Club; DVD reviewer for The Ronn Owens Show (KGO NewsTalk 810 AM San Francisco); and President of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.
CALVARY: Telling the Good Guys From the Bad Guys
by Richard Von Busack
Some very sad music outros the Irish tragi-comedy Calvary —“Suba,” a lament by the Paraguayan harp and guitar folk duo Los Chiriguanos, recorded in the 1960s. Christ’s last climb is honored in the title. Going up that lonesome road is an unlikely sacrificial figure: Father James (Brendan Gleeson) a stout, hairy, dismayed priest of an Irish town that has all but shrugged off the yoke of Catholicism.
The plot by John Michael McDonagh is a neat twist on Hitchcock’s I Confess . In the confessional booth, Father James has a supposed penitent, who tells the Father that he was repeatedly raped by a priest. The unknown man then informs Father James that he will kill him next Sunday in punishment for the sins of his Church. Not because he’s guilty, but because he is innocent.
In the week left, James goes on his pastoral rounds, as always, trying to figure out who the killer would be. Is a movie the right shape for this kind of plot? McDonagh divides the priest’s fateful week into days—there could have almost been at least seven episodes, to flesh out the characters and deepen the mystery.
James is a weary man, but he has reason to live—the superb Kelly Reilly plays the suicidal daughter he had, back when he was married, and before he took Holy Orders. The slow death of her mother was one reason for her sadness.
The town has a series of likely suspects. Chris O’Dowd is a butcher with severe marital problems: every fine comedian has the capability to play it nasty, and Dowd proves that rule. James quizzes an African immigrant (Isaach de Bankole) who isn’t in the mood to forgive the Church for its part in colonialism. James ministers to a dying American novelist (M. Emmet Walsh, hammy but hanging on), and he encounters a rich wastrel (Dylan Moran) who fancies himself to be the local squire, ever since he bought a small manor house.
Moran is one of the funniest people on this suffering planet—on TV he was the crazed, inebriated proprietor of Black’s Books , which did for used bookstores what Fawlty Towers did to B and Bs. Moran demonstrates maximum fatuousness by trotting up in English riding regalia, and discussing Brideshead Revisited —maybe he could call in for church service, like the Marchmains?
Any product of a small country’s cinema industry in 2014 is going to be at least part travelogue, to lure the investors. The people in Calvary may be ugly inside, but the coast at Sligo has its own terrible beauty. It looks fresh, but it looks cold, even in summer. The chill seeps into the interiors such as the empty pub where James works up one last act of defiance.
Gleeson shows the Celtic tiger inside that shaggy, ox-like carcass. It’s a sight to see. Dick Tracy’s creator Chester Gould had a motto: “If you can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys, you’re one of the bad guys”. Calvary isn’t that black and white, but it is just that simply moral at heart. It could touch even the kind of non-believer who feels that Jesus was a suicide. Gleeson’s journey is melancholy but evil-comic, and Calvary awakens new respect for a lonely profession tainted by scandal and cover-ups.
Richard Von Busack is a staff writer at San Jose’s Metro Newspapers. He’s the author of The Art of Megamind and has written for Entertainment Weekly, n +1 and cinematical.com. He’s a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.