‘Calvary’: Mini-masterpiece with a punch

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For 21st Century Media

In the New Testament, Calvary refers to the place outside of the walls of Jerusalem, where Jesus was crucified. The title invites Jesucentric comparisons to the film’s protagonist. Father James LaVelle (Brendan Gleeson) is an Irish Catholic priest, stationed in rural County Sligo. He seems to embody certain transcendent, Christ-like qualities.
The parallels become evident from the outset of “Calvary.” In a compelling opening scene, Father James takes confession from an unseen and unidentified parishioner. With an eerie calmness, the latter announces his plans to kill Father James the following Sunday on a local beach. What is the grievance that inspires this murderous intention? With a certain perversely precise illogic, the parishioner explains that it would do no good to kill a bad priest. By contrast, killing a good priest like Father James-well that would really grab people’s attention.

Screen capture from the movie trailer for "Calvary" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3iBJbcHq-oU

Screen capture from the movie trailer for “Calvary” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3iBJbcHq-oU

As typically practiced in film, dramatic irony provides the viewer with knowledge that the protagonist doesn’t possess. “Calvary” reverses the formula. The viewer has no idea who has authored the threat. However, Father James knows the identity of his homicidal parishioner. Will he run to the police and seek protection? No-that would violate the sanctity of the confessional, a cardinal tenet of his religion.
Despite the imminent death sentence hanging over his head, Father James remains single-mindedly devoted to his pastoral duties. As the clock ticks down on his pending execution, Father James is repeatedly confronted with the ongoing battle between faith and doubt.
In the lead role, Brendan Gleeson is truly remarkable. Gleeson is always a reliable actor. Even in the most severely circumscribed roles, like “Edge of Tomorrow” earlier this year, he makes his presence felt. Gleeson is particularly skilled in his ability to convey a certain bemusement at the absurdity of the world around him. He does so, even as he maintains an undiminished gravitas. Father James exudes the qualities of the ideal parish priest. He is genuinely kind, caring, and insightful as he ministers to his flock. Even those amongst us, who do not seek spiritual succor, would welcome the opportunity to know someone like Father James.
The cadre of the well-drawn supporting characters constitute a fine complement to Gleeson’s star turn. There is not a weak performance among them. As a young altar boy, Mícheál (Mícheál Óg Lane) has a delightfully mischievous glint in his eye, even as he protests indignantly when Father James accuses him of taking a nip of altar wine. Chris O’Dowd brings his likable persona, seen in comedic fare like “Bridesmaids,” to the film. He portrays Jack Brennan, the town’s butcher, who good-naturedly accepts the fact that his wife, Veronica (Orla O’Rourke), is sleeping around with promiscuous abandon. Jack knows that Simon Asamoah (Isaach De Bankolé), an African émigré auto mechanic, is fornicating with his wife. He nevertheless cheerily plays chess with his rival. Father Leary (David Wilmot) and Bishop Garret Montgomery (David McSavage) are far more interested in protecting the image of the church than ministering to the spiritual needs of its members. Dr. Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen) is an emergency room doctor. He has witnessed numerous deaths, which have rendered him an embittered and militant atheist. Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran) is a corrupt banker. His disreputable machinations have left him fabulously wealthy, albeit consumed with a well-earned sense of guilt. Gerard Ryan (the veteran 79-year old actor, M. Emmett Walsh) is a writer from the United States. Father James enjoys an intellectual camaraderie with the superannuated wordsmith.  As the town’s senior police official, Inspector Stanton (Gary Lydon) enforces the law. Nevertheless, in derogation of prevailing proscriptions against homosexuality, he regularly engages a male prostitute, Leo (Owen Sharpe), as his rent boy. Brendan Lynch (Pat Shortt) is a pub owner facing foreclosure. He blames the church for not opposing the heartless abuses of the banking community.
That would seem like a full roster of people for Father James to deal with in the week preceding his murder. However, there’s more. Teresa (Marie-Josée Croze) is a French tourist, whose husband was recently killed in a fluke car accident. Father James performed last rites for the decedent. Late in the film, we are introduced to Father James’ suicidal daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), who was born in his married days, before he entered the priesthood. We also meet Freddie Joyce (Domhnall Gleeson, the real life son of the lead actor), a serial rapist/killer/cannibal who Father James visits in prison. Even this widely-reviled sociopath receives compassion from Father James.
John Michael McDonogh, the writer/director of “Calvary,” has penned an impressive screenplay. It is intricate, nuanced, and carefully-observed. He shepherds his screenplay to the screen with considerable finesse. Particularly noteworthy is his artful use of misdirection. Throughout the film, the viewer will find themselves wondering who has threatened to kill Father James and whether they will follow through with the deed. Even the most prescient are unlikely to intuit the film’s denouement. McDonogh previously deployed Gleeson to great advantage in the former’s debut film, “The Guard.” Here, once again, the auteur showcases Gleeson’s strengths as an actor.
“Calvary” has a strong sense of time and place. It immerses us in the microcosm of coastal Easky in County Sligo. The town is only slightly more than a hundred miles from Dublin. However, it is light years from the pace of life in the bustling capital of the Irish Republic. Despite the exquisitely specific setting, “Calvary” explores universal aspects of the human condition.
Larry Smith, cinematographer for Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” and more recently Nicholas Winding Refn’s underseen gem “Bronson,” performs the same role here. His well-framed shots optimize the film’s narrative. Father James’ emotionally-charged conversation with his daughter, as they stroll along the cliffs above the ocean’s crashing waves, is memorably constructed.
Despite the pervasively serious tone and themes of “Calvary,” it does not want for comedic elements. Its many wryly amusing moments are organically integrated into the film without distracting from its central moving message about the human condition.
The film’s fundamental darkness is further leavened by McDonogh’s playfulness. An observant viewer will notice the banner headline on the front page of “The Sunday Times,” being perused by Father James. Its announces that two hit-men are being sought for killings in Dublin. This is a shout out to the director’s younger brother, Martin McDonough, who helmed, “In Bruges.” That film starred Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell as two hired assassins on the prowl. In another vignette, Leo, the diminutive gay male prostitute, delivers the flippant lines, “Whadda ya’ hear, whadda ya’ say, Father?” Cinema savants will recognize the appropriated dialogue as a homage to the 1938 Michael Curtiz directed classic, “Angels with Dirty Faces.” In his breakthrough role, James Cagney played gangster, Rocky Sullivan, who routinely spouts the phrase. The death row inmate is about to be marched to the electric chair for murder. When Pat O’Brien as Father Jerry Connolly visits Rocky, bearing an impassioned last-minute plea, he is met with the incongruously insouciant greeting.
Most members of traditional societies subscribed to the absolute belief that their universe was not only created, but governed, by a panoply of Gods or a single supreme being. People drew comfort from their soothing belief systems. “Calvary” is an insightful study of the crisis of faith, which gnaws at many in our post-modernist, increasingly secularized world. “Calvary” simultaneously provides a compelling detective yarn. Who has threatened to murder Father James? What drives the man to kill a benevolent priest who has done him no wrong? The film adroitly merges the two components into a synergistically satisfying whole.
“Calvary” is a quiet, little film with an abbreviated running time. It is devoid of any car chases, pyrotechnics, or special effects. Nevertheless, courtesy of a stellar performance by Brendan Gleeson, a strong supporting cast, a stunning screenplay, and effective direction, it is a contemplative mini-masterpiece with a punch.

***1/2 R (for sexual references, language, brief strong violence, and some drug use) 100 minutes

Nathan Lerner welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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