Calvary — a Film Review by Gary Chew
Words attributed to St. Augustine preface John Michael McDonagh’s new film, “Calvary”: “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.”
Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is a good priest, not guilty of abusing children who attend his church in a small coastal Irish community. For that reason, the unseen man speaking through the small confessional window tells Father James that he, the penitent, will kill the priest in a week’s time for past sexual abuses visited upon the penitent as a boy. The man is so filled with rage that he believes the Catholic Church will suffer more damage if a good priest is executed instead of one who, in fact, is culpable for initiating such atrocious sexual acts.
I inferred from this startling initial scene that Father James knows the man’s identity. The audience however, is not privy to it; and as “Calvary” continues, my inference about the priest knowing the penitent proves correct. Father James continues with his routine parish duties, mentioning the threat only to the bishop, but without identification. The days begin to tick off.
“Calvary” is mostly comprised of short, powerful scenes that depict Father James engaged with several characters of the small town. Each is representative of common stereotypes found in everyday life.
There’s Father James’ fellow priest who is younger, less experienced and suffers from shallowness; a listless, wealthy entrepreneur who has a bad case of “emptiness;” a promiscuous wife and her cuckold husband; a strategic-minded bishop with advice; a local police official involved with a ruffian sort of male who is gay; and a committed physician at the local hospital who is an atheist.
The other principal character, and by far most interesting, is Father James’ single, adult daughter who’s come to visit him from her London home. Prior to joining the priesthood, James was married and fathered the daughter, and named her Fiona. His wife died in childbirth. Kelly Reilly plays Fiona. The relationship between father and daughter gives “Calvary” even more weight that includes scenes that are most touching.
Not to worry though, the first half of the film allows for a good deal of light, good humor despite the ominous warning laid on Father James at the outset. The mix of relationships the direct, taciturn, “no funny business” priest reveals that, underneath, he is of a good nature with a strong motivation to render Grace to people of his town when he can. How he’s able to shift from one kind of parishioner to another with whatever appropriate and honest concern called for … gives Gleeson a fertile platform on which to ply his well-oiled acting chops.
Gleeson played the title role of McDonagh’s previous film from 2011 … “The Guard.” As in that film, all the “Calvary” cast turns in a fine performance.
Interestingly, the supposed place that might be the “Scene for Calvary” is not a small hill that resembles a skull, but a flat stretch of sand known to the townspeople as “the beach.”