“Killin’ a priest on a Sunday. That’ll be a good one.”
As so often is the case in everyday life, first impressions are immeasurable. Film is no different. There is a power in filmmaking that none of us have control over in our very own lives. We don’t determine our own endings or beginnings, instead forced to relinquish control over to the powers that be and the hands of time. Calvary, while unquestionably religious, is a deeper inspection into the universal surrender to, detachment from, and isolating clemency fostered by one’s faith no matter how you define it. The handsomely photographed, subliminally directed, and supremely acted Calvary is one of the most haunting cinematic experiences I had in 2014.
Above I hinted at Calvary‘s powerful opening. Father James (Brendan Gleeson), a dispirited follower of Christ, sits in his side of the confessional waiting for the usual outpouring of guilty misconduct and trivial sins. The empty booth is filled by a man, familiar to Father James but not to the point he can make a precise identification. “I first tasted semen when I was 7 years old,” the enraged penitent says. He then tells father, in an incredibly emotional and unsparing moment how this went on – every other day – for five years. Imagine the pain and trauma that would induce. The man then tells Father that he is going to murder him simply because he is a good priest, a good man, a decent person. A shake up for the church that not even the most righteous can calmly walk into the dark. It’s a phenomenal setup that gives a strict timeline to abide by and triggers our suspicion as Father James wanders around the small Irish countryside he calls home.
Father James is a traveling salesman of faith. He’s a regular at the town’s only bar and knows every member of his congregation, as well as his community, by name. Calvary is almost an anthology of the priest’s everyday life. He walks around and talks to people, saying he is there to listen and provide solace. Father James is a talkative and agreeable man, and his own freedom and dispensation of penance and forgiveness don’t really come inside the booth. It’s in these moments outside the walls that Saint Peter built, kindly asking questions and holding on the go opportunities for confession. Just as I was typing this I realized the people he encounters all represent – at their core – one of the seven deadly sins. Calvary‘s rich dialogue and profoundly metaphorical script make this a thought-provoking journey into the clashing pursuits of good versus evil.
Brendan Gleeson, an exceptional actor, gives the best performance of his career in this weighty tale of ethics. He’s emotional, engaging, and has the type of screen presence you can only be born with. Father James is a complex character. On one hand he’s a widower who left his daughter Fiona (an impassioned, affecting Kelly Reilly) for a new marriage, this time to the church. On the other is a man with a defined moral code which is constantly confronted. These rules and virtues were established long ago and aren’t abided by the current civilization. They’re dated. The parameters of his devotion to his faith, and life, are challenged by the proliferating cruelty and relentless atrocities done by one neighbor to another. The cross that he prays to can only act as a bullet proof vest for so long until the film’s who-dunnit investigation and growing stakes are driven through the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet.
For those of you who don’t know, Calvary (also called Golgotha) is the site where Jesus was believed to have been crucified. It’s an appropriate title for this powerful, and for lack of a better description, incredibly deep film. Father James finds himself surrounded by individuals and groups who want to tarnish the good and the true. Is the fight worth making a statement? Or can you just as easily spread a message of love by losing the battle but winning the war? John Michael McDonagh, the writer and director, presents his case with the beautiful Calvary. He places the last shot on a beach, where everything, the good and the bad, the blood and the tears, will soon be washed away by the encroaching seasonal tides. It’s such a suitably effective creative choice. Calvary draws you in with its stunningly lush visuals and further resonates because of the unique dialogue, flavorful characters, and a profoundly simple message which is sure to generate discussion.
“Judge not lest ye be judged.”
Rating: 4.5 out of 5