Brendan Gleeson is superb as a pragmatic priest on a journey in ‘Calvary’
What happens in the confessional stays in the confessional. According to Catholic law, any priest who violates the confidentiality of the booth will find himself excommunicated. So if a priest happens to hear something dire after Mass one Sunday—like a death threat, to be carried out in one week—he has no recourse but to spend the next seven days combing through the community, hoping to identify the malcontent and diffuse the situation, or possibly even arm himself in self-defense.
At least, those would be the choices in an ordinary action thriller. But neither the Irish drama, Calvary, nor its writer and director, John Michael McDonagh, can be classified as ordinary. Although much of the action follows the outline above, the film transcends its action, branching out into a poignant, often scathing, and even occasionally blackly humorous meditation on the human condition—at its best and worst. And it mostly succeeds in its grand aims, thanks to a marvelously skilled and subtle performance by the great Brendan Gleeson in one of his best roles as a caring village priest.
McDonagh previously directed Gleeson and Don Cheadle in the subversively funny Irish cop action comedy, The Guard. The new film deals with more serious issues—abusive priests, heinous financial scammers, death, loss, suicide, despair. Calvary has a harder edge, between the deadpan wisecracks (and there are plenty of those, too), but we forge ahead with the mighty Gleeson—on-screen in nearly every frame—as our guide.
Father James (Gleeson), parish priest of a small village on the rugged Irish seacoast, hears a confession one Sunday morning that includes a death threat. Because the man in the booth was raped repeatedly by a priest as a child, and his tormentor is now dead, he says he is going to retaliate against the church by killing a “good priest”—namely, Father James—the following Sunday. As the days tick down, and Father James tries to decide what to do, he ministers to his flock as best he can.
They are a wayward bunch, from the unfaithful wife (Orla O’Rourke) getting beat up by either her butcher husband (Chris O’Dowd), or her mechanic lover (Isaach De Bankolé), to the filthy rich banker (Dylan Moran) trying to feel “a modicum of guilt” for his part in crashing the economy, to a young cannibalistic serial killer (Domhnall Gleeson) serving a life sentence. Father James also counsels a youth who wants to join the army to meet girls (in a very wry exchange), administers last rites to a car-crash victim at the behest of the coke-snorting doctor (Aidan Gillen), and makes time for a visit from his grown daughter (Kelly Reilly), on the rebound from an unsuccessful suicide attempt.
If it seems like a lot of perversity for one small village, it’s possible to view the story as metaphor for the seven Stations of the Cross on the road to Father James’ own personal Calvary. (Villagers named Veronica and Simon even figure in the plot.) Not that it would ever occur to Father James to compare himself to Christ, but the story structure ultimately plays into McDonagh’s larger themes of sin, virtue, sacrifice and redemption.
Which is not to suggest the film feels like a sermon. A barely recovered alcoholic widower who came late to the priesthood, Father James strives to be of some practical use to his parishioners, not by offering up a bunch of empty platitudes about God’s will or Heaven and Hell, but by providing sensible, pragmatic, realistic advice and practicing tolerance for his flock’s many foibles. Unlike many of the other townsfolk, he never doubts his own faith, but he does worry about his ability to effectively serve his community. It’s because he doesn’t presume to tell anybody what God wants that Gleeson’s flawed Father James is so appealing.
We are in classic McDonagh territory: lush green Irish landscapes, plenty of glib, funny, profane dialogue, and the occasional eruption of sudden, nasty violence. Calvary is not for everyone, but its clever structure, McDonagh’s furious wit, and Gleeson’s world-weary, scruffy warmth make it a journey worth taking.
CALVARY *** (out of four) With Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Chris O’Dowd, and Aidan Gillen. Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh. A Fox Searchlight release. Rated R. 100 minutes.