dir: John Michael McDonagh
We all know how awful the Catholic Church’s legacy of abuse and corrupted silence is. At least, those of us who aren’t apologists for the Church realise that. And it’s also uncomfortably part of the present, because many of the Church’s victims are still alive, some of the abusers still live, and many of those whose job it was to threaten, cajole, or bribe people into silence still reign, and are in wonderfully lofty positions still in the Church’s hierarchy.
But going over that is a very different story from the story Calvary wants to tell. It’s impossible to tell the story of a Catholic priest in Ireland without that awful legacy looming over everything, but the point of Calvary is very different. Its central character is a good priest (Brendon Gleeson). He doesn’t apologise for or deny what went on before; he strives to minister to the people of his tiny village in County Sligo despite their seeming complete indifference to the religion they purport to be a part of.
He, doggedly, refuses no-one, no matter how outright contemptuous they are of him or his faith, or how awful their crimes.
The problem is that he is a good priest. Someone from his parish who suffered awful abuses as a child comes to the confessional to confess a crime they are soon to commit. This happens in the first minutes of the film, so it’s not really a spoiler, because it’s the entire plot: this victim of the Church decides he will enact retribution not on the evil priest who abused him, but on a good priest, being Father James.
He, the unseen and unrepentant killer, tells Father James he has a week to set his affairs in order. It’s a pretty rough week that follows.
Father James spends that time doing virtually nothing different from what we are meant to believe is his usual weekly routine. Being a small Irish town on the east coast, he seems to get personally involved in people’s lives, perhaps moreso than would be seen as wise. When doling out wafers during Communion, he spots that one of his parishioners sports a black eye (Orla O’Rourke), and he takes steps to enquire as to who did what and why.
Why? I dunno. Perhaps because he sees the lives and wellbeing of these people as his responsibility, despite the fairly obvious fact that they don’t see it as such. At all. In the slightest. When he asks the husband, who is the local butcher (Chris O’Dowd), he denies it and mumbles about his enjoying her spare time with other lovers, one of whom probably did it. He asks the wife, and she laughs it off, implying that she gets off on being slapped around. He visits one of her lovers (Isaach de Bankole), and he flicks a cigarette at the priest for his troubles.
Father James might see these people as his flock, and they all, inexplicably, attended mass on that first Sunday, but they all seem to regard the priest as an unwanted anachronism at best, and a symbol of all the misery the Church has perpetrated at worst.
And yet he soldiers on. He has, apart from the death sentence looming above him, the personal drama of a daughter (Kelly Reilly) who’s recently attempted suicide, and here, too, his advice is unwanted and his solace is unappreciated, though there is still clearly love between the two.
Wait, Catholic priest with a daughter? This goes to part of why Father James is such a great character. His story is that he’d had a life, what we would regard as a worldly life, prior to hearing the call of his vocation. It just so happens that he heard the call after the death of his wife. This calling of his has had an effect on his daughter, of that we have no doubt, as she explains in the film’s most affecting scenes.
There are plenty more people who pick at him, who need him and needle him, who scorn him, but he doesn’t turn away from any of them. He knows who plans to kill him, but we don’t. So when he interacts with most of them, the men at least, we wonder which one of these men is dropping hints of what they’re going to do in their misplaced desire for justice.
One of the most venomous, who isn’t really a member of his parish, but who is part of the community, is a caustic doctor who works at the local hospital (Aidan Gillen). An avowed atheist, he picks at the good father, for no other reason, it seems, at first, than amusement. All the priest was doing there was giving last rights to a man who sustained mortal wounds in a car accident, and offering what consolation he can to the man’s soon to be widow (Marie-Josee Croze), and for that he has to endure more abuse. It doesn’t help that the actor plays the character with the same silky malevolence that he plays the character of Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish in Game of Thrones. If anything, he’s a little more evil here, but not because of anything he does, but because of the relish he takes in saying awful things aimed at the priest.
This isn’t even the worst of it. Other characters, like the local publican, blame the priest for stuff neither the Church directly nor even tangentially has anything to do with, like the impending foreclosure of his mortgage. The shitty publican even says outright, with loathing in his voice, that people in the near future won’t even be able to able how foolish the people of the past were to believe in the fairy tales of Christianity.
That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it? Well, this flick is a bit harsh, and some far harsher stuff happens, harsher stuff is said, and the good priest bears it all. Because this priest is a man, and not a saint, even he has a breaking point. He lashes out at people, eventually, but you could hardly blame him, considering the week he’s been having.
It’s the worst week of his life, possibly, and the fact that almost everyone around him is so awful, emotionally detached, or just selfish transcends the fact that he’s surrounded by sinners who sin without remorse, and don’t feel bad about it.
This is called Calvary, though, and like the example set for him, the priest soldiers on to his Golgotha, to his crucifixion, knowing the fate that awaits him, knowing there are steps he could take to avoid his suffering, but choosing to go through it anyway like his saviour before him. What a fucking martyr.
Sure, at least I know what to get him next Easter: couple o’ nails and a few planks of wood, he’ll love it and it’ll come in extra handy since he so obviously wants to get nailed up.
Just kidding, kidding because I love. No, he’s not particularly martyrish, but he is being asked, by the film, to suffer for sins he’s not responsible for. Nothing he’s done either while we’re watching or from what we hear of his past implies that he is in any way deserving of suffering, that he should have to suffer because of the multitude sins of the Church, the sins of the shitty village, or our sins. He suffers because someone has to. He suffers because he’s good, not in spite of it.
It’s not as bleak as it sounds. I did find it a bit exasperating, though, and depressing to see the contempt, and, in one instance, fear with which he is treated, because he tries to give solace to literally anyone and everyone, even an awful serial killer at one point (very oddly played by his own son Domhnall Gleeson, with a Spock haircut). He’s great, and Kelly Reilly as his daughter is great too, but the entire flick isn’t entirely convincing, if you catch my drift.
This McDonagh chap, and his brother Martin, who’s responsible for In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, are too clever by half, they’re both too clever for their own good by half. They also write their screenplays like they’re writing plays. Much of what happens has the beats and the feel of a stage performance rather than a film, sometimes. And there’s an awful (for me) undermining moment when father and daughter are trying to speak honestly and openly to each other, and they both quip before and after it that it’s like a third act revelation in a play, which is less meta than it is just distracting and contrived. Took me out of the flick entirely, and it took me a while to get back into it after that.
There are also these strange sections with a gay hustler/coke dealer who speaks like a 1930s Edward G Robinson style gangster, that made no sense to me, and were even more contrived than anything else. Other than indicating that almost everyone in the town is a sinner at best or a criminal at worst, I'm not sure what point he served.
Contrivance entirely abounds in the story, rendering many of the characters less than characters, and just makes them plot devices for delivering examples of sins or selfish behaviour, but none of this really sinks the flick because the acting performances are generally so strong. There is humour, sly humour, almost enough to undercut the bleakness, but not enough to make it any less depressing, especially at the end.
It’s almost enough to make you stop believing in an Almighty God who cares about every little shitty thing we do.
7 times Brendan Gleeson and John McDonagh came up with the idea for this when they were getting horribly drunk together at a pub, and it still works anyway, out of 10
*after a character is caught doing a line of coke* “Oh Father, it's purely medicinal" – of course it is - Calvary