“Calvary” Stumbles on the Way to Crucifixion


Calvary (John Michael McDonagh, 2014)

“Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved.

Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.”

– St. Augustine

“My first taste of semen was when I was 7 years old”

– Off-camera voice spoken through confessional wall to Brendan Gleeson’s Father James at the start of Calvary

A film that opens with the above epigraph, attributed to St. Augustine, as white text over black, and then segues into a stark confessional scene, in which an unknown man describes his childhood molestation by a Catholic priest, holds out the promise of a raw emotional journey into how the hope and promise of Christianity collide with the sins of the Church, especially the sin of pedophilia. As written and directed by Irishman John Michael McDonagh, whose previous feature, The Guard, was similarly set in a small Irish hamlet and also starred Brendan Gleeson (who also starred in In Bruges, written and directed by Michael McDonagh, John Michael’s brother), Calvary starts out with every indication of fulfilling that promise, and then some. McDonagh has a wonderful feel for his homeland’s beauty and ruin, as well as for simple dialogue that conveys more by what it doesn’t say than through needless exposition, and Gleeson is more than up to the task of carrying the weight of the film – and of the world – on his wide and weary shoulders. But about halfway through the 100-minute running time, Calvary begins to falter, losing its light touch and deft mixture of comedy and tragedy to become an overwrought mess. It stumbles badly on the way to its own crucifixion. Still, the film is well worth watching for Gleeson, alone.

Gleeson plays Father James, a widower (and now-sober alcoholic) who joined the priesthood after his wife died. He has a troubled daughter, nicely played by Kelly Reilly (who, with this and Flight, needs to be careful not to be typecast as the struggling addict), who comes to visit him after a failed suicide attempt. Through their conversations, we learn much about what motivated this one-time bon vivant to become a priest, and their scenes together are gently rendered. It’s all colored by the threat uttered in the opening confessional, however, in which the sex-abuse survivor declares that he will exact retribution on the Church by killing an innocent priest – Father James – since killing a guilty man would mean nothing. As Gleeson makes the rounds of his disillusioned flock – the only believer in the power of faith is a visiting French woman whose husband dies in a car wreck – we watch him struggle to bring some good into the world in the face of indifference, all the while knowing that he will probably die if he doesn’t leave. And struggle he does, since no one gives a damn.

For a good while, the film is very effective at showing how the years of administrative neglect and moral corruption have eroded the ability of even a sincere priest to do his work. We almost come to believe that Father James will ultimately triumph over the disgust of the scant congregation members he has left. The fact that he doesn’t is not where the film goes wrong. Rather, the threads of the story begin to fray as McDonagh starts underlining his points in bold underline, explaining in no uncertain terms how Father James’s struggle is quixotic, at best. Then there is also the question of tone: as the film grows psychologically more dire, the comedic bits seem less and less appropriate. Finally, the ending eruption of violence is shown in such an out-of-the-blue graphic close-up that it feels like it belongs to a different movie, as if McDonagh is channeling his inner Tarantino.

In spite of these significant problems, however, the movie raises important issues of institutional failure and faith, and with fine supporting performances from Chris O’DowdAidan GillenIsaach De BankoléMarie-Josée CrozeOrla O’Rourke and even *gasp* Domhnall Gleeson (Brendan’s son, and an actor I usually find unbearable to watch, but who here is very good), Calvary has many reasons to see it, even if the sum total of its quality elements do not help it transcend its flaws. I give it a (very) qualified recommendation.

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