In a film that pits the dark cramped confines of the confession box against the vast open landscape, and indeed in a film titled Calvary, place and space were always going to be important. The sweeping shots of the sublime Irish countryside and the deserted outstretch of beach, which represents the film’s ‘Calvary’ provide the antithesis to the insular and claustrophobic village life in which everyone knows everyone. In Calvary John McDonagh has created a mesmerising picture of the religious man, and the film’s comic interludes allow him to explore the complex religious ideas and implications of the Catholic priesthood in a way that is nuanced and measured.
“Killing a priest on a Sunday. That’ll be a good one.” In an unapologetic punch of an opening sequence, a man confesses to Father James Lavelle the sexual abuse he suffered as a young boy at the hands of a priest. His choice of revenge is not to kill a bad priest, and the one in question is dead already. No, instead he chooses to take providence into his own hands and as a result Father James is given a week to set his affairs in order. In a reversal of dramatic irony, he admits to his superior that he knows who it is who is going to kill him, but the audience doesn’t. What follows is an introduction to the possible suspects as the audience frantically attempts to match the voice to the character. In typical McDonagh style, this bleak plotline is balanced with black comedy and the script delivers this contrast between the hard-hitting and the humorous with typical aplomb, never allowing the comedy to alleviate the emotional impact.
The daily rounds of the priest bring us into contact with each of the ensemble cast, and each of their tales of woe. But instead of enlisting the help of Father James, the village seems hell-bent on parading their sins in front of him, and the oppressive nature of this environment, which seems only to mock, makes it hard for him to maintain his composure. Not that Father James is portrayed as a perfect character, he is a priest with integrity certainly, but, as we slowly piece together, one who has as much to beg forgiveness for as anyone else. Brendan Gleeson’s turn as Father James manages to bring out every aspect of this complex character and deliver them with a force that will set the audience reeling. We knew he had a talent for comic timing but it is the emotional weight that Gleeson brings to this central role that makes it something breathtaking.
From the off, Father James is set up as the Christ-like figure of the film. Calvary plays on this idea of sacrifice and suicide and, recovering from an attempted suicide herself, James’ daughter describes how Christ was included in a list of famous ones. “I think that there’s too much talk about sins and not enough talk about virtues,” Father James tells his daughter on the Sunday his death is scheduled for. For a film so intent on finding sin in every character it seems strange to lament the lack of consideration given to virtue. But perhaps this is the very question the film ponders. In the end though there is no need for the film to lay out explicitly what it is exploring as indeed it is the tight interweaving of so many ideas that makes it so enthralling.
There always seems to be something very physical about a religion that regularly takes in the blood and body of its saviour, and Calvary takes this idea and runs away with it. The visceral and the physical take centre stage in a film where religious symbols are mingled with butcher’s carcasses, adultery, suicide and cannibalism. These in turn give way to the raw and elemental, in which the earth, sea and fire take in and destroy the man-made.
Calvary is a film of huge breadth and the absolutely perfect balance between the black comedy and the tragedy gives way to an intricate and harrowing drama. It is a layered character piece with each story pulling you in a different direction, making you question and re-question constantly. The film hangs heavy on you. It will invade your mind and make you return to it again and again to re-live the thought provoking yet hilarious story. To feel again the powerful sense of emotional disquiet, and to wonder again at the beauty of a piece that can make you do both those things at the same time.