Overview: During a confessional, a priest learns that the confessor will attempt to murder him in a week’s time. Irish Film Board/Lipsync Productions; 2014; Rated R; 100 Minutes.
Condemned to Die: Calvary sets a very distinct expectation with its first spoken line. The ensuing exchange of dialogue establishes a determined, naked, jarring tone that will hold for the length of the movie, and Father James (Brendan Gleeson) reacts to the confession with nuanced expression in a way that accurately colors everything we are about to learn about his character, and everything he is about to learn about himself. As the unseen confessor details his repeated pre-pubescent rape at the hands of a now-dead priest, Father James reacts with a subtle wince, but not one of surprise. Instead, the priest in his empathetic pain seems disheartened and expectant, as if he knows this sort of wickedness to be a fixture within his institution and the world around it. When the victimized confessor concludes with a promise to kill the priest, Father James is still relatively unaffected, as if he can not calculate the weight of the threat.
Carrying the Cross: Gleeson and writer/director James Michael McDonagh (The Guardian) illustrate Father James with a combination of earnestness, compassion, and committed faith, a description of clergy relatively rare in the cinematic landscape. At one point, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), the suicidal daughter of Father James, who knows him more than any other character, asserts that she knows his evocation to be sincere. And it certainly seems thus. His commitment to his divinely-assigned role, as defined by scripture and tradition, is unshakeable, even in the face of impending doom and even as he is revealed to be more devastatingly world-weary with every scene. The film immediately recalls Graham Greene’s classic novel The Power and the Glory, but Father James does not possess the reluctance of the Whiskey Priest, only the same personal despair.
The Crucifixion at Calvary: Father James holds parish over a beautiful small Irish town. The list of suspects is limited. (In fact, the mystery is almost a secondary concern and easily figured out by anyone paying attention to the voice). In the opening act, the townspeople are an interesting collection of characters– flawed, but in possession of wit and comedic pulses that give the film a nice rhythm. As the film progresses, however, McDonagh seems determined to establish the supporting roles as vessels of sin driven by their own respective despair. Their cynicism becomes stiff and robotic as they all start to use Father James as a strawman for their complaints against the world and life. Calvary is a movie in possession of bold power, but the power is reckless when shaped by the writer/director’s strange commitment to the pure pessimism of his secondary characters. Before Father James meets his potential assailant on the beach, he shares a phone call with his daughter in which he states that forgiveness is the most underrated virtue and the message sticks with her, setting her up for a final scene that mirrors the opening in arrangement and emotional impact. If McDonagh had taken the advice of his main character and practiced forgiveness for his supporting characters, the entire film might have possessed the same miraculous power as its opening and closing.