If you claim Calvary, the follow-up film to John Michael McDonagh’s good yet overambitious The Guard, doesn’t cause you to deeply reflect on faith, religion, virtue, sin, and forgiveness, there’s a good chance you’re lying. The premise alone is cause for reflection. The film opens with a tightly-framed shot of a priest hearing confession. To his disgust and shock, the parishioner confesses: “I first tasted semen when I was 7 years old.” He was raped every other day for five years—a staggering and disgusting number that amounts to having been raped almost 1,000 times. He wants revenge on the church that concealed the wretched crimes done to him. He reasons murdering a good priest is more disastrous than murdering a bad priest, so he cruelly tells the attentive priest, who is both good and righteous, he only has seven days left to live. The priest’s name is Father James, played with extraordinary skill by Brendan Gleeson. We spend most of the film watching the Father move through the town as he hopes to identify the confessor. McDonagh glibly remarked that Cavalry is less of a “Who dun it” and more of a “Who’s gunna do it”
McDonagh cuts to the heart of these issues with near surgical precision and exactness, giving the film an honesty that is so unusual to see l was constantly emotionally off-balance. That’s of course partially due to the mix of pitch-black comedy and heartbreaking tragedy sitting side by side. Both sides of the film are effective, but not equally, and don’t always complement each other. Calvary takes on the quality of a person you just met who told you too many personal details too quickly, and now you’re left in a daze. It’s a film constructed so tightly around faith and religion that keeping a professional distance becomes impossible. It didn’t take long watching the film before I became compromised. I was deeply entrenched in Catholic culture growing up, and the film so smoothly enunciates the nature of the religion that it opened a connection to deeply private feelings and beliefs that I was not sufficiently prepared for the film to root out.
I would have felt downright intruded upon if it weren’t for the warm face of Brendan Gleeson. His collaborations with the McDonagh brothers—John Michael’s brother Martin directed the much lauded In Bruges—have yielded his best performances, and this may be his best one. Gleeson is understated, but has the kind of unblinking friendliness that would have made him thrive as a therapist. He’s in almost every scene of the film, and his is a performance that demands attention. Consequently, his behavior is distinguished from that of any priest I have ever met. He brings a real-world sensibility to his musings on faith and life that priests sometimes lack. Often he gives insight drawn from everyday experience as much as intellectual ideas, and his style is often played for laughs. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, a young man confesses he’s suicidal since he can’t get laid, and the priest we’ve already learned to love and admire dryly recommends pornography.
Father James’ unorthodox approach, however, serves a purpose much deeper than a laugh. It’s the most important piece of the entire film. He carries the cross of the film’s demons, both within the town as well as within the film itself. See, Father James is the sole champion for good in his town, a lonely knight, lighting the fire that hopes to keep darkness at bay. This has two meanings. The town where Father James preaches has succumbed to moral abandon, where the police inspector pays for sex and a doctor snorts cocaine with loose women in pub bathrooms. Each character in the town follows suit, displaying enough of the seven deadly sins to get the studio thinking about a sequel to Se7en. In union with the moral state of the characters, the tone is utterly dour and borderline nihilistic.
Calvary is a bitter moralistic tale, and while it’s true the McDonagh brothers imbue their films with a strong undercurrent of sorrow, Martin does it with greater nuance than his brother does here. In Bruges is a template of tonal range, where pessimism and despair is contrasted with beauty and hope (that’s to say nothing of the masterful balance between comedy and tragedy where they each elevate the other). In contrast, John Michael McDonagh’s over-zealous insistence on a bleak worldview deafens the impact of Calvary. He doesn’t always control his ideas, and it’s clear the film sometimes gets away from him. Because Father James is so approachable not only to the members of the town but also to us viewers, we’re meant to be less anguished by the grim view of society on display. Largely it’s worked for the townspeople, who treat their exchanges with him as though he were a walking confessional. This gave way to some of the film’s most powerful scenes, including those with his daughter. Father James still acts as a counterweight to brighten the moral and tonal integrity of the film, and McDonagh went too far in the other direction. It’s too dark, too grim, and ironically, ultimately corrupts the important themes of the work.
That’s not to say McDonagh doesn’t know what he’s doing, since, for the most part, he does. This is most impressive in the economy of the writing. Father James’ wanderings are only thinly connected by plot and instead are united through themes and symbols. In one of the film’s most compelling moments, the doctor (Aiden Gillen) delivers a monologue to Father James relating a blind, deaf, and paralyzed boy to the enforced silence of abused boys. It’s a stunning feat of writing that Gillen performs with necessary force. Father James himself is a metaphor for many things: faith, the church, the necessity of forgiveness (for others and yourself), and, most of all, for martyrdom. This relates back to the title, and we slowly realize its meaning. To let the Church heal, he has made himself a whipping post for the Catholic Church to absorb the damage done. In this sense, Father James is a Christ figure. These symbols carry over to the townspeople as well, and it is a testament to the quality of the writing that all it takes is one or two brief scenes for us to feel like we know these characters and who they are.
The aesthetics are equally powerful. McDonagh cites Malick as a major influence on his work, and it appears like he’s learned a few of the famous recluse’s tricks. Calvary uses the poetic power of nature to give the characters context and to amplify spiritual ideas. Ireland’s beautiful lush landscapes, mired with jagged rocks and often concealed with mist, already have an ethereal quality vital to set the tone. The otherworldliness is heightened by the aching orchestral score set to an omniscient point of view: helicopter shots capture the rolling hills into the beyond. Here, men and women look miniature size, which act as a powerful reminder as to the scale of the film’s ideas. Leaving the movie theater, that is exactly how I felt. Cavalry has moments of tremendous spiritual power, but it nonetheless falls short of greatness.
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