“I’ve always felt there’s something inherently psychopathic about joining the army in peace time, as far as I’m concerned people join the army to find out what its like to kill someone. I hardly think that’s an inclination that should be encouraged in modern society, do you?” asks Father James Lavelle.
A priest enters a confessional at church on Sunday. He awaits the next, if any, parishioner who wishes to confess his/her sins. A man steps in and starts off by telling the priest that he had first tasted semen at the age of seven. Rendering the priest speechless, the man continues to tell the priest that he had been sexually abused by his local priest every day for the next five years after that. When asked if he would step forward to file a complaint, the man tells the priest that the priest who had done those horrible things to him was already dead. The man then goes on to say that killing a bad priest might not affect the Catholic Church, but killing a good, innocent priest would be a real shock for the Church. He then tells the priest to get his affairs in order and meet him at the nearby beach in one week (where he’ll kill him). That is how John Michael McDonagh’s excellent new film Calvary begins, and I was lucky enough to have caught a recent showing of it.
Religious films and/or films of faith are an interesting, if mixed, bag for me since I’m an atheist. There’s the ones that embrace the fantastical, the ones that try to shove their religious propaganda down your throat, and the ones that focus more on faith and morality without sermonizing. McDonagh’s film focuses more on faith and morality rather than religion. Brendan Gleeson gives an excellent, Oscar-worthy performance as Father James Lavelle, a good priest who spends a lot of his time in his small Irish town being tormented by his parishioners in one form or another. Among his trials and tribulations are his dealing with a millionaire who wants to donate his illegal money to the church, trying to talk a young man out of joining the army, dealing with a woman who cheats on her husband with an African mechanic, and reconnecting with his suicidal daughter (Lavelle had gone into the priesthood after the death of his wife). Lavelle’s faith is further tested when his church is burned down, his dog’s throat gets slit, and he has to deal with the looming showdown with the parishioner who had been sexually abused as a child. At one point he even gets snapped at by an irate father who assumed that Lavelle was going to molest the man’s daughter (Lavelle simply happened to be walking in the same direction as the girl and was only making sure that she was safe).
McDonagh’s screenplay contains a lot of dark humor despite the serious subject matter (believe it or not). Besides Gleeson, there’s terrific work from Chris O’Dowd (who plays a local butcher whose wife is regularly engaging in adultery), Kelly Reilly (who plays Lavelle’s daughter Fiona, who felt abandoned by him when he joined the priesthood), and Dylan Moran (who plays the millionaire who feels nothing in his life). The Irish locales used in the film are gorgeously lensed by director of photography Larry Smith while maintaining the film’s dark tone. I may be bold in declaring Calvary a masterwork; every scene is integral to the film and you just can’t help but absorb it as it steadily makes it way to the finale (which I refuse to spoil here). Calvary is an intensely rich drama that is simply a must-see for all (I really hope Fox Searchlight gives it an Oscar push).