' ' Cinema Romantico: Calvary

Monday, August 25, 2014


"Calvary" serves in abundance staggering shots of the sweeping shorelines, rocky vistas, high definition greenery, and churning seas that define its small town Irish setting, yet none of these images count as the film's most memorable. Rather the face of its lead actor, Brendan Gleeson, as weathered and windswept as the Irish coast, framed consistently in close-up, comes to define the film. Owning the screen in every conceivable way without overpowering it, he is Father James Lavelle, head priest at a remote parish, and at times Gleeson's bushy beard completely shrouds his clerical collar, a nifty visual trick suggesting the comings and goings of faith, and rendering him in those moments as nothing more than A Man In A Black Cossack - a Johnny Cash character by way of County Sligo. After all, he’s not your prototypical priest. He’s a reformed alcoholic and long-ago widower with a daughter (Kelly Reilly) who has just attempted to commit suicide not so much as a Cry For Help as a Who Knows What.

The film opens with Father James in a confessional where a man, never seen, enters the booth, claims he was abused and raped by a priest when he was a teen and vows revenge - not against the party responsible since he is long since dead, but against Father James, because if the priesthood is merely a symbol than any symbol'll do. The stranger, however, promises his target one week to get his house in order – then, judgment day.

While this looming showdown ostensibly means that Father James becomes a kind of investigator, dealing with the colorful local lunatics and ferreting out clues as to just who might have made this threat, it is less about that than illustrating him as the shepherd of his unruly and decidedly un-holy flock. As an actor, Gleeson has perfected the facial expression of appearing simultaneously bemused and aggravated, and here he wields it with abandon. This unnamed town at the core of "Calvary" becomes an effective representation of the world at large, one in which genuine faith is dwindling, where the local priest is a therapeutic caretaker rather than a servant of God.

Early in the film, a dying writer (M. Emmet Walsh) on whom Father James routinely checks up laments that his whole life is an “affectation.” Father James replies “That's one of those lines that sounds witty but doesn't actually make any sense.” It’s a comical retort, sure, but the film itself argues that Father James is less configured in Christ than in affectation. Consider that in spite of his station we never see the clerical main character sermonizing nor quoting scripture. The only time he gives out Hail Mary's and Our Father's is in jest. The closest equivalent is a brief early scene wherein he gives the sacrament to parishioners, yet their faces and follow-up behavior suggest they merely crave penance without actually having to repent.

As both writer and director, John Michael McDonagh does not make the Catholic church’s clerical abuses and cover-ups the explicit point but nor does he deflect their role. One scene finds Father James having a polite chat with a young girl only to watch, stupefied, as her father rushes in and squires her away, fearful that a moment left alone in a priest’s stead will only tender trouble. As such, the main character, taken in conjunction with the film’s title, evoking Jesus taking on the sins of all mankind on the cross planted to Calvary Hill, shoulders the sins of the Vatican. Not that the film presumes to provide atonement for an entire organization.

This is a personal journey undertaken by Father James, one pointed not toward a reckoning with the mystery man but a man getting right with God. That the journey's end point is not the plunge into darkness its nature suggests but a manifestation of belief is due in no small part to McDonagh's screenplay, though the performance of Gleeson is ultimately what conveys it with such heartrending authenticity. This is award worthy work, potency growing out of his restraint. He finds reason to believe. He gives us reason to do the same.


Anonymous said...

Wow, second review I've seen of Calvary today. Seems like I need to see this!

Nick, just wanted to say that I love reading your reviews, even if I haven't seen the film. You're such a talented writer!

Nick Prigge said...

Awwww, thank you Kristin. Very sweet of you to say. And you should definitely see this one! I'd love to hear your reaction.