A modern passion play set on the rocky northwest coast of Ireland, “Calvary” is the sophomore feature by writer-director John Michael McDonagh, and quite different from his debut, the comedic action film “The Guard.” It does, however, share with that film its star Brendan Gleeson, who’s as craggy as the locale, and it offers an intriguing blend of high drama and dark humor.
Gleeson plays Father James, a priest serving a small parish in County Sligo. A big, hulking, bearded figure in his cassock, he’s a genuinely caring, spiritually driven individual who joined the priesthood only after the death of his wife. As the film opens, he’s visited in the old-style confessional box by an unidentified man who says that as a child he was molested by a priest and intends to punish the clerical establishment by killing Father James a week later on the beach. He knows the priest to be a good man, which, he argues, will be exactly the point. In other words, Father James will be dying for the crimes of others—as, in Catholic theology, Christ did.
The remainder of “Calvary” records the priest’s process to a potentially fatal encounter with the unknown parishioner as, in a sort of dark parody of the stations of the cross, he confronts possible suspects and others in the village. One is town butcher Jack (Chris O’Dowd), whose wife Veronica (Orla O’Rourke) is having a blatant affair with car repairman Simon Asamoah (Isaach De Bankole). Another is wealthy local lord Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), a lonely, drunken profligate looking for some sort of personal redemption. Then there’s Dr. Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen), a cynical atheist who ridicules the very notion of faith; Brendan (Pat Shortt), the short-tempered barman at the village pub; and Milo (Killian Scott), a socially awkward young man so desperate for sex that he’s considering joining the army as an outlet for his passion. One person who can certainly be ruled out, by reason of age, is Father James’ altar boy (Micheal Og Lane), and another is Freddie Joyce (Domhnall Gleeson), the imprisoned serial killer who asks the priest to visit him in his darkest week.
Father James receives little in the way of consolation or good advice from his clerical associate Father Timothy (David Wilmot), an obtuse stickler for rules wholly out of his element in Sligo, or his superior Bishop Montgomery (David McSavage), who offers nothing but bland platitudes. More generous in spirit but no more helpful are Gerard Ryan (M. Emmet Walsh), a crusty American novelist living out his last days in relative seclusion on an island off the coast, and Teresa (Marie-Josee Croze), a French tourist whom the priest comforts after giving the last rites to her husband, the victim of a car crash. Somewhat more practical is Gerry Stanton (Gary Lydon), a cop who loans Father James a gun even as his lover Leo (Owen Sharpe) makes a flamboyant departure from the cop’s house.
The specter of death hangs over everything in “Calvary”—not just in terms of the demise of Teresa’s husband, the illness of Ryan (who asks Father James to procure the gun for him) and Joyce’s recollections of his crimes, but by reason of the fact that the week also sees a visit by the priest’s daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), who arrives with her wrists still exhibiting the scars from a recent suicide attempt. And yet the film balances the quite heavy drama with shafts of humor—humor of a dark, biting sort, to be sure, but though the laughter might catch in your throat at times, the film does elicit it.
It must be admitted that many of the secondary performances in the film are theatrical turns of a very flamboyant sort—that’s certainly true of Gillan and Moran, but also of O’Dowd. The richness of McDonagh’s dialogue, as well as his directing style, encourages an oversized approach. But despite his size there’s not a hint of showiness or brassiness to Gleeson’s performance. He does get a sequence to express the priest’s anger at a situation that threatens the very foundations of his faith and vocation when he retreats to the bottle after many years’ abstinence and tries to exorcise his demons through violence. But for the most part Gleeson conveys, with remarkable control and reticence, a genuinely spiritual-minded man struggling to find a way to avoid a confrontation that might mean his death while at the same time overcoming fear and despair to accept what is going to happen without complaint. “Calvary” is a mystery in both senses of the term: it’s set up to push the viewer to try to figure out whom the voice in the first scene belongs to. But it also touches on what’s more broadly called the mystery of faith, through which a person like Father James willingly places his fate, as he would see it, in God’s hands.
The film is beautifully shot by Larry Smith, who uses the locations expertly and stages sequences like a church fire with both economy and precision, qualities also to be found in Chris Gill’s editing. Production credits are first-rate throughout—from Mark Gallagher’s overall design to Fiona Daly’s art direction, Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh’s costumes and Patrick Cassidy’s score.
The large issue that “Calvary” raises—of clerical abuse of children and its emotional toll—is one that’s been treated by other films in recent years, and one that’s become especially wrenching in Ireland of late. McDonagh has found a way to deal with it in a fashion that’s trenchant, absorbing, and quite distinctive in approach.