“Bloody Hell. Jesus Christ. Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.” No sinner’s confessional is strong enough to describe the power of John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary. It requires a “dios mío” from Pope Francis to be sufficient. Blasphemy on the tongue of a St Peter’s pontiff: Vatican vice.
Calvary’s premise is the charting of seven days in the life of Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson). Shot in Easkey on the Atlantic west coast of Ireland, you would be forgiven for expecting some sort of idle documentation in the form of an Island Parish. Yet, this is no ordinary week. Opening with a death threat and closing with a final showdown, Calvary is a gun-slinging Sligo western. All elements are present from the shoot-up in a bar to the aborted escape before the inevitable face to face with his rival. If this sounds at all reductive from Ireland’s first creative response to the abuse scandals within the Catholic church, it transpires to be total genius. The film constructs a web of rapid-fire, snappily comedic dialogue, loaded with dark humour as cover for a storyline with a genuine, didactic message that resonates long after the final credits roll.
The craftsmanship is the inversion of casting the priest, a totemic Brendan Gleeson, as the victim. Perhaps the obvious conceit in response to the scandal was a classic witch hunt of an evil pedophile masquerading as a priest. This would be unsatisfactory when Calvary can satiate the bloodlust, while simultaneously launching an apologia for the role of a good priest. Gleeson’s Father, who looks like an bigger, badder Philip Seymour Hoffman playing a red-bearded Braveheart, is characterised as the perfect parish pedagogue. Gleeson realises the heart-breaking loneliness of an isolated individual within a community from which he has become alienated through no fault of his own. He wanders around, salutary and smiling, within a crowd of hateful, spiteful and vicious parishioners who see in his face a window to the church and the untold horrors of yore. Resurrecting the soutane, Father Lavelle is a modern man trapped in the vintage costume of his elders. A constant reminder of the still sore past, rankling with society despite his best efforts.
Within this Sligo parish, Gleeson is accompanied by an ensemble cast that reads like a who’s who of Irish comedy. David McSavage and Pat Shortt, playing a savagely unshakeable bishop and a short-tempered barman, are instantly recognisable to a domestic Irish audience through their years of television service in The Savage Eye and Killinaskully. Meanwhile, to a British audience Channel 4 stalwarts Chris O’Dowd and Dylan Moran raise an instant smile of appreciation and recognition. Director McDonagh finds time to point a finger at the banking sector (lest we forget Ireland’s recession struggles), giving Moran room to become a fully fledged moron, even pissing on his own priceless Holbein. To an American audience, alongside The Wire’s Aiden Gillan, english theatre actress, Kelly Reilly, will soon become a household name starring opposite Vince Vaughn in the upcoming season of True Detective. Reilly as Lavelle’s daughter could easily be squashed in a sandwich of magnetic male leads. Instead, she finds her own force field in tender harmony with Gleeson, distilling a quieter, reflective counterpoint to the film’s louder, garrulous moments.
Nonetheless, credit must go to a stunning performance from O’Dowd. Transcending the constraints of comedy type-casting, O’Dowd delivers the true pathos at the heart of the film. He is an apt symbol for the film. The veneer of comedy belies a beating drum of a message beneath. The fact that Calvary disguises its didactic quality beneath a cloak of dark comedy and Irish banter lends the film less pretentious bombast and more realism. In its joviality and sense of fun, it feels flawlessly Irish: a perfect vehicle for the profundity of the central argument. It is the blending of the comedy and gravity that produce the effective pathos.
This is achieved through the structure of the scenes, constantly tripping between the jovial and grave. Light-hearted humour segues into severity, often with a sharp cut between scenes, like a butcher’s knife descending, a pistol loading or a champagne cork bursting. At their best, these scenes combine like a Rubik’s Cube. We slip from the film’s comedy apogee featuring Killian Scott’s Milo, a moped riding bow-tied virgin, trapped in the closeted countryside, considering joining the army, before sliding into Father Lavelle delivering the last rites in intensive care. Here we have the duty of a priest, from the ridiculous to subliminal self-sacrifice: all in a single day. A Father’s role within the community elegantly extolled.
The role of a good priest, that is. This is not a one dimensional appraisal. McDonagh pursues the positives without burying the negative stigma of so debased a sanctity: the holy Catholic church. This comes in the shrew-like face of David Wilmot as an awful excuse of a man, Father Leary. Leary is a lecherously acquisitive leech, a pathetic priest who single handedly represents generations within the church who were happy to turn a cheek and exonerate themselves from the truth of sacrilege, scandal and sex abuse. Behaviour such as his was condoned through the forget and forgive mentality that perpetuated the vortex of evil at the church’s centre, placing pedophile’s on the periphery, not the in the court of justice. Finally, Pope Francis I appears to be addressing this fateful flaw after the abject failings of his predecessor, Benedict XVI.
A unique film like Calvary is a timely cultural counterpoint to the often slow grindings of ecclesiastical bureaucracy. The fact that creative culture can produce such a radiantly numinous film concerned with humanity’s utmost indecency is testament to Irish ingenuity. Yet, this is not designed as a last line drawn, but rather a stimulus to further focus the investigative microscope. It is not case closed, but fuel for the fire of justice. Reconciliation does not end here.