“One part humanism to nine parts gallows humour” is how one character describes themselves in John Michael McDonagh’s sophomore feature, Calvary (2014). These are just two of the aspects that go into the director’s study of religion and integrity in a broken modern Ireland. After a terrific central turn as the forthright policeman at the heart of McDonagh’s debut The Guard in 2011, Brendan Gleeson occupies the lead role once again as the hirsute Father James facing a mortal conundrum amidst the stark beauty of County Sligo. A mythic meditation on themes both local and universal, it proves a emotional and hugely resonant work shot through with comedy as black as the priest’s cassock.
“Cast a cold Eye On Life, on Death” wrote Yeats in his final poem, Under Ben Bulben. The famous mountain looms ominously in the distance throughout this film and the poet’s words seem to have inspired McDonagh. The film observes a week in the life of Father James’ and his peculiar flock as he tends to them and his own affairs. In a bravura opening, the camera watches Gleeson in his confessional box as an unknown member of his parish recounts his childhood sexual abuse at the hands of the clergy. He then reflects that revenge on the perpetrator, or any guilty priest, would not be enough. Instead, to make a statement, he is going to kill an undeniably good priest. Father James is given a week to make his peace. The mystery of the would-be-murderer persists throughout, yet proves ultimately of minor concern.
Gleeson’s Father knows who the man is and keen-eared audiences will recognise the voice too. Rather, what follows is akin to a Celtic version of Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), as darkly comic episodes follow in which the Father encounters an array of the lost souls that inhabit his village. They are all characters verging on the archetypal in acted by hugely talented players; Game of Thrones star Aiden Gillan plays the cynical doctor; Chris O’Dowd is a cuckolded butcher; Orla O’Rourke his wanton wife; Isaach De Bankole a dangerous foreigner; Dylan Moran an arrogant banker. Through these individual scenes, a rich and textured portrait of modern Ireland is drawn around the weather and brow-beaten face of the put-upon Father James.
“You are a representative of the church,” he’s told, and for that he receives nothing but scorn and suspicion from the people he meets – a fact that seems to continually undermine his own calling. God may not be a torturer (recalling a famous line from Bresson’s 1951 film Diary of a Country Priest) but Christianity here proves to be one, somewhat. Gleeson is fantastic in the lead role and whilst he is given moments of real tenderness – particularly with his daughter (Kelly Reilly) and his retriever, Bruno – his performance is nuanced enough not to have need them. He is a man surrounded by bleakness and beauty, and even amongst its irredeemable characters, the reflective and poignant Calvary finds a slither of hope.
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