Regardless of the fact that I created this site to discuss movies that I like & love, and hopefully that you like & love as well, I make a pretty sincere effort to resist hyperbole. That said … I damn sure hope that Ireland recognizes Brendan Gleeson as a national treasure. As much as Toshirô Mifune has done for Japan, Marcello Mastroianni for Italy, or Max von Sydow for Sweden, Gleeson manages to embody the strongest and most honest and the weakest and most vulnerable in his nation. CALVARY is his second film with writer/director McDonagh. I was a big fan of their previous film, THE GUARD, but that movie left me inadequately prepared for their latest collaboration.
In the opening sequence of CALVARY, we meet Father James (Gleeson) in a claustrophobicly tight shot on his face in a confessional booth. A man’s voice through the screen tells Father James that he had been molested as a child by a priest over several years. The voice will never have his revenge on is attacker, as that priest is now dead, so this voice has decided he will take his revenge on Father James by the following Sunday. Father James is nearly but not completely certain who in his small town had just threatened him. We follow Father James for the rest of the week as he attempts to reconcile with his estranged daughter (he had been married before joining the priesthood), shepherd a turbulent lovers’ triangle who do no want his help, and manage a potentially large donation to the church by a local banker. Among other things. Busy week for a condemned man!
The most immediate surprise of CALVARY, given the threat that overhangs every minute, is how damn funny it often is. This is by no means a comedy, it is a searching drama that takes a much more bleak worldview than THE GUARD, but Irish gallows humor erupts in the most unexpected moments. If you’ve ever been in a funeral wake, and shared some fond memory of the deceased that made yourself or others laugh just a little too loud, then you have experienced the sort of unsettling humor and intensity that this film evokes. Humor and scorn are drawn from the focus on individual characters, as well as the scope of larger entities such as the church, banks, local government, and your friends and neighbors.
CALVARY is that rare film about practitioners of faith that makes no attempt to offer you comforting platitudes disguised as answers. Its success is in its clarification of the questions. In what will probably turn out to be the most unforgettable sequence I’ll see in any movie this year, we see a pre-teen girl walking alone on a dirt road. Father James crosses her path and walks with her. She knows him and is not at all nervous about walking with him; we as an audience have come to know him, and we trust him on this road. And. Yet. Given the past few decades of sexual abuse scandals within the Catholic church, locally in Ireland and elsewhere around the globe, all we can think of is the myriad reasons that this scenario could go wrong. What if he says something the she misunderstands, repeats, and creates the illusion of impropriety? What if she is a flat-out liar and implicates Father James in some behavior. What if we don’t know him as well as we think we do, and the story is about to veer in a totally unexpected direction? What if neither of them do anything untoward, but a witness with their own perspective (or agenda?) reports seeing something other than what happened? This scene was more riveting than anything I’ve seen in an action adventure or horror film in longer than I can immediately recall.
I was deeply fortunate to attend a screening organized by the Boston Irish Film Festival that was followed by a Q&A with Brendan Gleeson & John Michael McDonagh. The scene I just mentioned, and several others, were turned inside out by the audience’s questions and held up to the light by the guests. There was a realization on both sides of the microphone that respect for and trust in authority figures is in really bad shape, with really good reason, and that facing these questions head on in absence of political correctness as this film does may be a crucial tool in reversing this phenomenon. At the end of the film I was aware that I’d seen a unique and powerful piece of filmmaking. At the end of the Q&A I was aware that I had witnessed a social experiment, one whose impact I hope will grow over time if this movie can achieve a measure of cult status. Pretty impressive work for a film that was shot on the sort of abbreviated shooting schedule usually reserved for episodic television.
There is so much more I want to tell you about CALVARY, but this would require either spoilers of the film, or the revelation of way more personal information than you want from a movie review article. If you’ve checked the IMDb message boards then you’ve seen how divisive this movie has been. All I should tell you is that I am firmly in the camp of supporters, and while I don’t expect that you will enjoy CALVARY, I think you will be moved by it. Sometimes movies can do more than entertain, or even inform; at best they can crystallize the human experience into an hour-glass.