CALVARYby Paul Blom / 26.09.2014
Violence, suicide, adultery, economic struggle, class division, arson, drugs, alcoholism, child molestation, animal abuse and murder, all wrapped up in a religious package… A fun night out for the criminally insane, or a depressing night at the movies?!
In Calvary you won’t find gigantic robots transforming and bashing one another across an American cityscape with a loud commercial rock band’s tune as a soundtrack. Instead, you will get the aforementioned dark vices, not in one giant dose, but delicately woven into a subtle, but profound, drama with escalating dread and tension, set in a quiet Irish coastal town with equal parts tranquility and dark secrets.
Irish cinema history’s most prominent themes relate to its history and the IRA. While the revolutionary organisation doesn’t have a direct impetus in Calvary, its religion of choice (and an integral part of its struggle) does – Catholicism.
The crux of the plot revolves around Father James being confronted in the confessional by a man who claims to have been sexually abused by a priest as a child. Since the sexual offender is dead, the man says he will kill Father James the next Sunday in an act of retribution. The man believes that killing a good priest would be worse for the church than killing a bad one, and thus his vengeance would be sweeter.
Always taking on his characters with conviction, Brendon Gleeson depicts this good, but tough, priest with great conviction. The character is faced with not only a death threat, but also a parish in turmoil. Like Twin Peaks (without the bizarre and inexplicable paranormal phenomena) – the small town in which the film is set is riddled with dark secrets. Most of the people Father James interacts with are hiding something; from his visiting daughter and her suicide attempt to his estranged wife and the African immigrant she’s having an affair with, an atheist doctor, a weird rent-boy, a deluded junior priest, and a butcher.
In religious / cultural terms, Catholic guilt is way up there. Catholic priest molestation reports are an added burden for a man facing a trying time of his life, already harbouring past struggles with alcoholism and the pain of losing his wife.
The church has a lot to atone for, balancing a legacy of doing good with its nasty side (decades of suppressing sexual abuse reports by redeployment, the Inquisition and Crusades – just a few more notches on their cross), while trying to stay relevant within an increasingly deluded world view.
The film’s title, Calvary, can be interpreted in many ways, but the most obvious is that it references the hill where Christ was crucified. It was the ‘saviour’s’ ultimate challenge – that of innocent sacrifice.
The script is excellent, great care taken to have character revelations link to the film’s themes, via guilt, morality, forgiveness, mortality and justice. The story is fraught with religious analogies within the members of the parish; victims and sacrificial lambs can be identified throughout.
Sure, this is not the kind of movie you go out to see for traditional entertainment reasons, or on a first date, but rather to get pulled into a well-crafted, dramatic story that guides you toward asking poignant moral questions, whether you have religious convictions or not.
*Written & Directed by John Michael McDonagh
**Starring Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Chris O’Dowd, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach de Bankole’