Front Row at the Movies
Is Good Reason
To See “Calvary”
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Let me admit up front that (1) I’m not a Catholic, (2) I’m not religious, and (3) I was born with what some consider a defect: the lack of a forgiveness gene in my DNA. So I may not be the best person to ask about “Calvary,” an Irish film about a Catholic priest dealing with the subject of forgiveness.
However, I am a fan of Brendan Gleeson, the Dublin-born character actor whose face you’ve seen in most Irish-themed films. Not having taken up acting until his mid 30s, he made his name portraying the Irish patriot Michael Collins in “The Treaty.” But you’ll remember him best playing a Scotsman alongside Mel Gibson in “Braveheart.” Or you may recognize him as Mad-Eye Moody from the “Harry Potter” series. He’s appeared in over 80 films, from being a hitman in “In Bourges” to the scheming mayor in “The Grand Seduction” (which recently played at the Tropic).
In “Calvary” -- still showing this week at the Tropic -- he is Father James. A good man by all accounts. Helps his odd lot of parishioners solve their problems, large and small. Trying to reunite with his daughter (Kelly Reilly), whose mother’s death had sent him scurrying for the safety of the priesthood.
Only it’s not too safe.
One day in the confessional box, an unseen voice threatens his life. Seems this would-be killer was abused for five years as a child by a priest. And in retribution, he decides to take the life of an innocent priest, as a blow against the Church. And Father James is his choice.
Yes, the theme of a good man laying down his life for the sins of others has a familiar New Testament ring to it. After all, the title is “Calvary.”
As Father James visits his parishioners in this costal village, he keeps us guessing who might be the threat. Is it Michael (Dylan Moran), the reclusive millionaire with ill-gotten gains? Is it Jack (Chris O’Dowd), the butcher accused of beating his wife? Is it the wife’s lover? Or the atheist doctor? Or one of the other villagers he encounters in his rounds of ministering to their troubled souls?
As Father James tells his daughter Fiona, we look too much at sin and not enough at virtue. And he believes the greatest virtue is forgiveness.
Can he forgive the man who seeks to kill him? It’s been done before.
Director John Michael McDonagh worked with Brendan Gleeson once before, on a fine little movie called “The Guard.” It was while filming that story about the Garda Síochána (the Irish police force) McDonagh came up with the concept for “Calvary” and wrote the screenplay with Gleeson in mind.
The film takes its cue from Hitchcock’s “I Confess.” Then McDonagh tells us, “I knew it was going to have this Agatha Christie-like ‘Who’s going to do it?’ aspect. Then the framework I found was … people have asked if it’s the Seven Deadly Sins, but it’s actually structured around the five stages of grief, so it’s denial, anger, bargaining, acceptance and hope. Those are the five movements. Once I had that structure, I was more or less ready to go.”
Sin, redemption, abuse, forgiveness are heavy themes. Yet in some ways this is a black comedy.
“Yeah, the story is about a Priest and so that may not appeal to people who are not religious,” admits McDonagh. “But there is also that crime/mystery element that I hope is a hook that might appeal to people who may not otherwise be interested. Yeah, it deals with a lot of different subjects but it’s done by meeting one sort of idiosyncratic, strange character after another like in a Sturges screwball comedy. That was my approach. I start with character first and whatever the subtext will come out, it will always be there if you create a great work of art. People will see things that you may not have intended. If it’s dense and it’s rich, those things will come up all the time. But it’s to be entertaining first. The film should appeal to both atheists and true believers.”