calvary-2014-006-brendan-gleeson-long-shot

Calvary begins with a man’s explicit description of how he was raped by a priest as a child. He says this in a confessional. The priest to whom he is confessing bemusedly comments that it’s a quite vivid opener. It’s a darkly funny, self-aware moment that sets a tone for the rest of the film. The confessor takes umbrage at the priest’s perceived glibness, and the priest apologizes. The confessor then states that the following Sunday, he will kill the priest for what the Church has done to him. The man who molested him is dead, and he figures it will hurt the Church more to kill a good priest than it would to kill a bad one. The rest of the film is the week that follows.

Brendan Gleeson plays the priest, Father James Lavelle, and the movie demonstrates that his soon-to-be murderer’s assessment of him as “a good priest” is a correct one. He takes pains to try to help the people of his remote Irish village. He tries to intervene in domestic abuse situation. He brings food to a writer living in a remote cabin. He even visits a serial killer in prison to provide some brief company. Father Lavelle is intelligent, patient, calm, and of a gentle disposition. He is also continually frustrated by his seeming inability to actually help anyone. Ironically, his enemy is not human sin but his own institution. Most of his own parishioners are in serious doubt that the Catholic Church can do any more good in the world. They are adrift in their lives, and Lavelle believes God can offer comfort, but none of them will take His hand.

Calvary, then, is an extended study in how we suffer, how religion seeks to mend us, and why we turn away from it. There’s obviously the man severely traumatized by the greatest betrayal a priest can make, and who is planning to lash out in the most drastic way possible. But the various other characters Lavelle encounters during the film provide other examples. Lavelle’s estranged daughter (Kelly Reilly), given to suicidal ideation, feels that he abandoned her after the death of her mother when he took the cloth. A rich man (Dylan Moran) feels utterly detached because of his money, urinating on a priceless work of art simply because he can. An Ivorian mechanic (Isaach de Bankolé) having an affair with a married woman is aware of how the Church has historically treated his people. The list goes on and on.

The other players include Chris O’Dowd, Aidan Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson, and M. Emmet Walsh. It’s a powerful ensemble, all of them working perfectly with the movie’s mixture of wry, grim humor and disquiet contemplation. O’Dowd especially is a wonder, trawling depths that have not asked of him in any film I’ve seen him in previously. But the common thread through all of them is Gleeson, who appears in almost every scene. His bleak solemnity is heartbreaking — anyone who thinks they couldn’t possibly sympathize with a Catholic priest will be given some pause.

Writer/director John Michael McDonagh easily matches his brother Martin (director of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths) in terms of black comedy with a philosophical heart. Ultimately, Calvary seeks neither to affirm nor to deny the value of religion, though it makes no bones about the failings of the Church. Instead, it wishes to prove that, at the very least, there is worth to two of the values Christianity holds highest: self-sacrifice and forgiveness. And the ending makes a strong case for both, even if it goes predictably overboard with Christ imagery. Funny and sad, sometimes simultaneously, this is one of the best films about religion to come along in years.