After the Duke of York’s lights went up after this Sunday morning preview screening, there was applause. This is unusual enough, but it didn’t occur immediately after the film had ended, but after the credits had rolled and the curtains had closed. More than half of the audience was still in the cinema, digesting what they had just seen, collecting their thoughts. What they had just seen was John Michael McDonagh’s only second directorial effort (following The Guard), Calvary.
The tone of the film is set in the astonishing opening scene. Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is sitting in his confessional box, when an (to us) unidentified member of his congregation announces that he is going to murder the priest in a weeks’ time. A victim of sexual abuse through a cleric as a child, he, in order to make a statement against the church, decides to kill a good priest, precisely because he hasn’t done anything wrong. We then follow Father James throughout what could be his last week on earth. He is visited by his mentally troubled daughter (Kelly Reilly) and deals with several members of the small local community during this time.
Religion seems to be making a comeback in cinema at the moment. After last year’s Philomena, several 2014 films are looking at theology. Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings mark the return of the big-budget bible adaptations, whereas films like Calvary or Ken Loach’s upcoming Jimmy’s Hall look at the role of the church in modern times. This comes at a time when religion, and particularly the Catholic Church, has arguably never been less popular. Calvary tries to counter this overwhelming negativity in many ways and makes a balanced argument. It’s not about ancient rituals and doctrines (there are only one or two scenes that takes place inside the church), but about the spiritual and social guidance the church can provide. If the priest is good, his influence is good.
Father James is, without a doubt, good. Good, but not perfect. There are hints towards a darker past, but he seems all the more wise for that. Here is a man of principle, a man with a vocation. This man is embodied brilliantly by Brendan Gleeson; aside from Brendan Rodgers, the greatest Brendan to originate from the Irish Isles. It may be too early for an Oscar shout, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him amongst next year’s nominees. The way he stands on the beach, defying the wind, his tunic and his hair blowing, commands instant respect. His stripy, ginger/grey facial hair forms a beard for the ages. He looks like Aslan the lion, but retains a certain vulnerability to him.
In an almost allegorical fashion, we see him impart his wisdom on various members of his congregation. Allegorical, because his small village seems to be populated with every stereotypical issue a priest could face: a vain rich man, a disoriented youth, a bored housewife, an immigrant and so on. There even is an ageing American writer looking for inspiration. McDonagh gets away with this contrivance because he uses these archetypes to make interesting observations (and because of the endings, but I can’t reveal why). Calvary is more like a fable; its goal is not to present a 100% authentic depiction of a rural Ireland, but to get to the metaphysical essence of it.
It is a comedy by the way. It is not as funny as The Guard, due to its darker tone, but there are many hilarious moments. The type of humour has been compared with the Coen brothers, not least due to the casting of Coen veteran M. Emmet Walsh. It would in many ways make an interesting companion piece to the Coens’ A Serious Man. Calvary is similarly witty, deadpan and intelligent, but it has more of an agenda, it is more satirical. Almost every joke serves a clear purpose, to establish a character or make a point.
Calvary is a powerful, mature and moving statement in defence of (aspects of) the Catholic Church. It is held together by Brendan Gleeson’s exceptional central performance and a stellar supporting cast. It is funny, it is intelligent, it is moving, it is surprising, it has Irish accents – it has everything you want from a movie. I doubt there will be any priests chained to the railing outside your cinema holding signs that say “Careful now!” or “Down with this sort of thing!”