Part slice of life, part character study, part meditation on faith and its structures, and part noirish murder mystery, John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary is a hard film to define. It is both very darkly comic and deeply sad. And it’s well worth 10 of your dollars and 100 minutes of your time.
Calvary opens in a confessional, camera squarely on Father James (Brendan Gleeson). An unseen penitent informs the father that he was raped, repeatedly, over a period of years, by another priest. He has no interest in going to the police or the press; yet another trial of yet another kiddie toucher in yet another parish will do little to rouse anger. Instead, this victim will take his revenge on the church and shock the national conscience by killing a good priest.
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He will murder Father James in one week’s time.
The priest knows who the penitent is but informs neither us nor anyone else. And thus begins the murder mystery portion of the film: everyone we meet is a potential killer. As a result, every conversation takes on a heightened, fraught quality. We, the audience, pay greater attention to each line of dialogue, searching for clues; we examine Father James’ face as he discusses matters about town with each member of his parish.
But Calvary is more than just a murder mystery. We follow Father James as he goes about his work, giving aid and comfort to believers and nonbelievers alike. His daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), comes to town following her release from a psychiatric hospital; his opening line to her is a joke about having failed at her attempt to kill herself (as I said, it’s a very darkly comic film). He tries to determine which of his parishioners has given a lady acquaintance a shiner. He comforts a grieving widow from out of town. It’s both mundane and gripping, given the stakes introduced at the film’s outset.
Of special interest is the relationship between the village and the church. Father James may be a decent man, but the community he works in is leery. It doesn’t help that his fellow priest, Father Leary (David Wilmot) is a silly and grasping sort, the kind of priest more interested in balancing the church’s books than saving anyone’s soul. When a banker who cost the nation millions offers to give the church an extraordinarily large sum to salve his conscience, Leary jumps at the money. James just sneers.
A palpable sense of anger—a justifiable one—undergirds virtually every moment in the film. Ireland’s structures have been shaken in recent years; the church has seen its moral authority diminish and the banking class did a good job of wrecking the economy. And no one seems to be able to do anything about it. These are the sins for which Father James will pay.
McDonagh has turned in a very writerly script, in that his characters are constantly critiquing each other’s utterances. "Certainly a startling opening line," Father James remarks after the first line of dialogue centers on child rape. "That’s one of those lines that sounds witty but doesn’t actually make much sense," the father tells a novelist who says something grumpy.
My favorite, perhaps, is the back and forth between James and a serial killer. "You see the light go out in their eyes—and you become God," the young man says, to which James quickly snaps, "No you don’t." It’s not just the blasphemy that aggravates James; it’s the cliché, the bland nothingness the killer’s quote symbolizes. Once the truism is disposed of, the murderous young man actually offers something close to insight into his actions and state of mind.