By Alistair Ryder (@YesItsAlistair)
“Calvary”, the second collaboration between director John Michael McDonagh and actor Brendan Gleeson, could easily be described as a horror movie based on narrative alone. One Sunday morning in confession, Father James Lavelle (Gleeson) is told in confession that he will be killed the following Sunday as the confessor wants to make “a statement”; he got abused by a priest when he was seven years old, and will only get closure by killing a “good priest”, someone who would never have malicious intentions, to rob the church of its innocence in the same way he was robbed of his. He now has seven days to work out who wants to kill him- something which isn’t easy in a vaguely “Wicker Man” style small town where everybody knows everybody, and everybody is a sinner in some way.
In many ways, the film is the polar opposite of McDonagh and Gleeson’s previous collaboration “The Guard”; that film was about a morally corrupt policeman who remained endearing to the local residents, whilst here he plays the only moral person in a town full of people who openly mock and belittle him and his religion, regardless of whether they know him or not. One scene that particularly stood out for me was an angry parent assuming that he was trying to molest his young daughter based on the fact he briefly spoke to her, showing that the allegations against a minority of the Catholic Church are proving to have implications for the “good priests” of the world. Although I’m notably a person with no religious preference, I did find the positive characterisation of Gleeson’s priest refreshing in a time where it’s become all too easy to denote an entire religion and its followers as corrupt based on the actions of so few.
Like Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” a few weeks ago, the film dares the viewer to question their beliefs, albeit in a more humorous manner (although be warned- this isn’t a straightforward comedy like “The Guard”, rather a drama with several funny moments). This is partly due to Gleeson’s sympathetic portrayal of the main character, which constitutes a career best performance from him, but mainly due to the supporting characters, whose perceptions and interpretations of their faith are severely questionable. Domnhall Gleeson (yes, Brendan’s son) cameos as a young prisoner who is regularly visited by the priest; he killed and abused two young girls, one of whom he ate “to see what she tasted like”- but he knows that once he’s granted absolution for his sins, he can go to heaven and apologize to them directly. If priests in real life have to deal with similar scenarios and people whose religious interpretations are morally flexible, it’s surprising many of them don’t have the same “crisis of faith” that dictates the final third of the film.
I’ve not mentioned many of the supporting characters, played by some of Ireland’s most well-known comic actors, arguably due to the fact the film is structured like a “whodunit”- or in this case a “whosgonnadoit”. Mainly, I’ve omitted this information because it seems incidental; it may be the driving force of the narrative, but it doesn’t seem the point of the film as a whole. It’s about a man given a week to resolve his entire life at a time when almost everyone in his life (with the exception of his daughter) could feasibly be the one who will end it.
“Calvary” is an occasionally funny and frequently heartfelt film about faith and the conflicts it can cause. It’s a rare film with religion as a central topic where a lack of religion in your life could easily benefit your viewing experience; as it stands, it could easily remain among my favourites of the year come December.