John Michael McDonagh and Brendan Gleeson, writer/director and star of The Guard, respectively are back. Back in Ireland. And Ireland’s not doing so well in Calvary.
In the build-up to seeing this, most of my time was fixing the boy’s pronunciation of “Calvary”. If you’ve never said it, but you’ve said “cavalry” a lot, it’s actually kind of hard. I remember seeing “Calvary” on a church when I was young and thinking “Hey, they spelled it wrong…?” (I figured that wasn’t really likely.)
Anyway, for you heathens, Calvary is the place where Jesus was crucified. (Also known as Golgotha, I guess because when you transliterate a word from ancient Middle Eastern languages, anything is possible!) And the little town where Gleeson is priest is in serious need of salvation, let me tell you.
This is a really, really fine movie, in contention for year’s best. The story is this: Gleeson is one of two priests in this rural Irish community, and while sitting in confession, a man comes in and describes his brutalization at the hands of a Catholic priest. Gleeson comes up with every reasonable way to help the guy, but nothing can be done really, since the molestor is long dead.
And so, the penitent (who isn’t, really) tells Father James (Gleeson) that he’s going to kill him. Precisely because Father James is innocent. Next Sunday.
Of course, it’s a small town, and Father James has a good idea who it is (though we, the audience, don’t) and the movie takes place in the week from the confession to the following Sunday. In that week, we meet the corrupt and sinful people of the town.
And boy, are they sinful.
We start with a simple domestic violence case—a woman with a black eye—and it just gets worse and worse. And, you know, people are sinful, that’s kind of the premise of Christianity (and all religions at least nod toward the corrupt nature of Man) but these people are not just sinful, they’re blasphemous and shameless.
I don’t mean they’re blasphemous in the sense of run-of-the-mill abuse of scripture. You know how a certain kind of atheist is more obsessed than any religious person with your belief in God? I mean, some atheists just don’t believe in God, and you don’t really hear about it. But some, they’re obsessed with disabusing you of any notions regarding the mere possibility of the divine.
That’s the kind of blasphemy you find in Calvary. It’s not the agnostic indifference to God but antagonism toward Him.
This never ends well.
On the one hand, this movie evokes the story of Saint Patrick going among the barbarian Irish and trying to convince them of a way of life that isn’t nasty, brutish and short, where passions are restrained to the benefit of society, with the promise of greater things to come.
On the other, the other priest, Father Leary (David Wilmot, The Guard, Anna Karenina) represents the worst of what The Church has become. He’s not a molester or anything (thank God) but when it turns out that a black man may have caused that aforementioned black eye, he cautions Father James to be aware of cultural differences and sensitivities.
As if the concept of sin didn’t apply. As if getting along was more important than being righteous. Saint Patrick obviously didn’t convert the heathens by saying “Yeah, just go ahead and do whatever you were doing.” (Given that we saw this movie shortly after the Rotherham story broke, it probably felt more evil than the narrative alone meant it to be.)
In perhaps a direct nod to St. Pat (I’m far from expert on this stuff), Father Leary is far more concerned with the money he can get from a local well-to-do fellow than he is with saving the hollow man’s soul.
James, by contrast, is practically the Dirty Harry of Catholicism, doing whatever he can to steer people the right way, in a manner that doesn’t always please his superiors. Only, unlike Harry Callahan, he’s not much of a hero to the people, either. (Who wants to be saved from his own sin, after all?)
Kelly Reilly, who’s legally obliged to be in 25% of all feature films, apparently, plays Gleeson’s suicidal daughter. Chris O’Dowd (The Guard), Aiden Gillen (“Littlefinger” from “Game of Thrones”), Dylan Moran (the douchey David from Shaun of the Dead), Isaach De Bankole and Marie-Josee Croze (both of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), and the great M. Emmet Walsh (he’s still alive!) round out the cast.
M. Emmet Walsh’s role is an interesting one. He’s known only as The Writer, and he sits in his little cabin writing and listening to Hoagy Carmichael records (which maybe was a big Brit/Aussie thing, given that it turns up in Tracks, too), and asks Father James for a gun so he can kill himself when the time comes, i.e., before he’s too infirm to take care of himself.
As I was watching this, I was sort of tallying off the deadly sins. The Writer is anticipating the (no longer canonical) deadly sin of acedia, which I believe originated in monasteries and is characterized by extreme boredom—a listlessness leading to despair and perhaps ultimately suicide, the sin of Not Loving God Enough, if you will. (I believe that became sloth.)
But it seems like most everyone here commits most every sin. Sorta like life. There’s no food gluttony that I recall, but consumption to excess? Oh, my. Is there anything else these days? There’s not much else in the movie.
The other thing might be envy. I’ll have to review it and think about it, but I could almost sense envy for Father James beneath the outward contempt that people had for him. The notion of a man being godly, and further devoting his life to an archaic institution? How can the modern man not be contemptuous of that—and also a little envious.
Anyway, you get the idea. It’s that kind of movie that makes you think about stuff. Even though I saw the ending coming from…well, the opening scene of the movie…I didn’t mind. It had to end the way it ended, and the coda was, if not upbeat, then redemptive.
The Boy and I both liked it a lot and, as mentioned, consider it a top-runner for our Best of the Year.