Monday, August 4, 2014

New movie review: Calvary

Father James, as played by Brendan Gleeson, prays in a scene from Calvary.

The damage has already been done. When John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary opens, the past has already set the future in motion, and the present has no say in what is to come. McDonagh’s script has many preoccupations – religion, guilt, and forgiveness among them – but at its core, it is about inevitability and struggling to live a good life in the face impending doom.

Brendan Gleeson plays Father James, a Catholic priest in an Irish town that has seemingly lost faith, if it ever had it to begin with. The members of his flock dutifully attend church and take communion, but they are going through the motions. In confessional, one member threatens to kill Father James for crimes the Church has committed.

The unseen church-goer was sexually abused as a child by his priest, who has since died. But, he does not want revenge on a bad priest. With chilling certainty, he tells Father James there is no message but vengeance in killing an evil person, and instead, he will kill a good priest. That will make news, he reasons. Father James is a good priest and a good man. No one – not even among the faithless – refutes this, but his own goodness can redeem neither the town nor the Church.

This is McDonagh’s second film, following 2011’s excellent The Guard. Apart from sharing an inspired leading turn by Gleeson, both pictures are fables of one man standing up to do what is right because it is his duty and he has the courage to do so. It was clear from that first film McDonagh possesses immense talent, and with Calvary, he makes good on that promise by dialing back the comedy and turning up the existential dread.

There is comedy here, but it is that of closely observed moments and recognition of the folly of human nature, more so than outright jokes. And because the film opens under the threat of death, the blackness is never far from the viewer’s mind. This duality – the humor of life and the terrifying fact it will end – is where Calvary finds its strength, and in Gleeson, McDonagh finds an actor who embodies this contradiction and embraces it rather than fleeing.

Gleeson is a sturdy, somber presence at the center of the film and plays Father James as a necessary shelter in the storm of the world, if only someone would take him up on his offer. Gleeson is a big, imposing man, and he is not afraid to use his size to his advantage. McDonagh frames Gleeson in such a way that he towers over his congregation, and even at his lowest moments, the high ground in this village belongs to him and him alone.

Except when it does not. By way of transition, McDonagh often cuts to the Irish countryside – the shores, the fields, etc. – and in particular to one towering bluff. More and more of this mountain is revealed throughout the film, and it feels as though the hand of God is reaching out of the earth to remind us that no matter how tall we stand, He can stand taller.

We follow Father James in the week after the death threat is made. The would-be attacker says he will give the priest a week to get his affairs in order, then meet on the beach to kill him the following Sunday. Father James goes about his business, and from the start, he knows who is behind the threat. However, he does not turn this person in or confront him. That is not his place.

His role in the community – in the Church – is to lead this person out of the darkness and into the light. Father James takes this role seriously, and each day of the week, we watch the shepherd tend to sheep who have gone astray. While often showing due deference to the man who hopes to save them, they show no interest in returning to the flock, but he is undeterred. He stands steadfast in his field as the clouds of doubt hover overhead.

Among his flock are the atheist doctor, who represents science and logic, the promiscuous woman, who perhaps represents the Whore of Babylon, the foreigner, the philistine, and the prodigal, as well as several others. Each has a part to play and wisdom to impart, whether they know it or not.

Chris O’Dowd, known to U.S. audiences as the love interest in Bridesmaids, plays a seemingly ignorant butcher whose life revolves around chopping things to pieces. Dark and foreboding, he is brilliantly cast against type, taking already-stellar material and making it his own. Aidan Gillen, of Game of Thrones fame, is less against type but no less brilliant as a doctor who is openly contemptuous of the snake oil he believes Father James is selling. At the same time, he seems to relish having a worthy adversary.

Yet, as the whole town seems to stand against Father James, either in practice or in theory, he has one person standing in his corner. Kelly Reilly, most recently of Flight and the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes adaptations, plays Fiona, the priest’s daughter. She arrives in town after a suicide attempt, seeking some guidance but mostly respite from her tragic life. Reilly is a calming influence in an otherwise suffocatingly tense film.

While Father James has the specter of imminent death hanging over him, his daughter’s crisis seems trivial in comparison, but as she makes clear without realizing it, no crisis is insignificant to the sufferer. Father James knows this, and it is this bit of insight that allows him to carry on in the face of so much adversity.

“Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do,” said Jesus on the cross at Calvary, this film’s namesake. Tellingly, the teachings of a forgiving Christ guide Father James, rather than the vengeances of a wrathful Old Testament God. He is turned away – politely and not – at every door he visits, but he continues to knock on each and every one.

The bubbling undercurrent of this film consists of the crimes of the Catholic Church and the abuses perpetrated by its clergy. The widespread sexual abuse of children by members of the priesthood constituted a breach of trust, the ramifications of which will be felt through the ages. The faithless did not simply lose their faith. It was shaken from them by the very people entrusted to strengthen it.

None of this is Father James’ fault, but it is made explicitly clear throughout the film that he represents the Church. He is the closest to God the villagers can hope to come, and as such, he represents the bitter betrayal of the Church’s crimes. They do not resent him but that for which he stands. Unfortunately, the two are one and the same, and the damage to both has been done. For what is faith without trust? But Father James remains, standing tall in the field and guiding his sheep into the fold. For what is a shepherd without his flock?

See it? Yes.

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