Calvary

July 5, 2014
Brendan Gleeson in 'Calvary' (2014)
Brendan Gleeson in 'Calvary' (2014)

Calvary arrives with a big rap, and a raging battle between fans and detractors. In England it has been hailed as possibly the greatest ever film from Ireland, but there are plenty of Irish cinema-goers angered by John Michael McDonagh’s savage parody of a broken, disfigured society. Either way, it’s compulsive viewing, thanks to a masterful performance by that impressive character actor, Brendan Gleeson, who plays Father James Lavelle, a Catholic priest based in a small town near Sligo, on the west coast of Ireland.

The story begins with a thunderclap. “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old, ” announces an anonymous voice in the confessional box. Father James listens in horror, then says what we’re all thinking: “It’s certainly a startling opening line!”

This sets the tone for a teasing, hyper-literate script that always seems ready to double back and comment on itself. At one point, the creepy local medic, Frank Harte (Aiden Gillen), identifies himself as “the atheistic doctor”, and complains: “There aren’t that many good lines.”

McDonagh’s style has both confused and delighted audiences, but it’s clear that we shouldn’t view Calvary as a work of gritty realism. The characters are all grotesques, more reminiscent of an episode of Father Ted than a play by Synge or O’Casey. Every conversation strains towards profundity, then turns and deflates its own pretensions. The story is peppered with literary and cinematic references, but can be enjoyed as the blackest of comedies, a mystery story, a morality tale, or a pseudo-western with more than a hint of High Noon.

The figure in the confessional tells Father James how he was abused by a bad priest, who is now dead. To get his revenge on the Church he announces that he will kill a “good priest” – James, himself – in seven days time. This gives the target a week to get his house in order, as the clock starts ticking.

Father James believes he has recognised the voice, and accepts that the threat was not subject to the sanctity of the confessional, as absolution was neither asked for nor granted. Yet he decides to keep the date with his would-be killer, no matter what the outcome. For the rest of the week we accompany Father James on his pastoral rounds, meeting an extraordinary group of misfits, each one a potential murderer.

There is Jack, the local butcher (Chris O’Dowd), a serial cuckold, whose wife Veronica (Orla O’Rourke) takes inordinate pride in her adulteries. One of her boyfriends is Simon (Isaach De Bankolé), a surly African immigrant. Then there is Frank Harte, the spivvy, coke-sniffing doctor who seems to ooze cynicism. There is Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), a former banker who has retired to the country to enhoy his ill-gotten wealth, and has sunk into a pit of depression. Next up is Milo (Killian Scott), a simpleton who wants to join the army, thinking that his murderous impules might be an advantage in the interview.

There’s the aging writer who fantasises about shooting himself; a bitter publican, under pressure from the banks; an aggressive cop who lives in a mansion, and his rent-boy lover, who effects a Noo York accent. Last and most bizarre of all, is Freddy Joyce, a young serial killer and cannibal, whom Father James visits in his prison cell.

The killer is to be found within this gallery of freaks, but almost everyone has an aggressive, disrespectful attitude to the priest and the Church. It is a test of faith for Father James, a reformed alcoholic, who joined the Church in middle age because he felt he had a vocation. To make matters more complicated, that week he is also hosting his 30-year old daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), who is recovering from a suicide attempt.

McDonagh has cited Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951) as an inspiration, and the script even includes a sly mention of Georges Bernanos who wrote the novel on which that film was based. Another movie that springs to mind is Luis Bunuel’s The Nazarene (1959), which tells the story of a saintly priest whose good deeds lead him into one disaster after another.

The episodic structure of Calvary is notably Bunuelesque, but where the Spanish director frames his story (as usual) as a critique of the Catholic Church, McDonagh leaves open the possibility of redemption. Father James, who is by no means a saint, believes that every member of his exasperating flock can be reformed. He takes the sins of the entire Church upon his own shoulders, being prepared to suffer on behalf of the paedophiles and hypocrites who have brought the institution into disrepute. The townfolk are not simply pathological misfits, but living expressions of a malaise that finds its roots in the deceitful behaviour of the Church, and the apocalypse of the Irish bubble economy. It’s a heavy burden for a lone priest with martyrdom on his mind.

Calvary
Written & directed by John Michael McDonagh
Starring Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Orla O’Rourke
Ireland/UK, rated MA 15+, 100 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 5 July, 2014.