Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Both film noir and philosophical exploration of the current state of Catholicism, Calvary is curiously resonant in spite of, or maybe because of, its fusion of widely discordant elements. Reflecting its fractured nature, Calvary could be said to work as either a black comedy or a grim drama, a character study with a definitive central performance by Brendan Gleeson as Father James or an ensemble piece featuring the eclectic cast of oddballs that make up his congregation. Whatever the case, it is quite powerful in all respects, setting out to delineate the beleaguered priest and his not so loyal flock through a passion story of a sort, propelled by an arresting opening scene.
With a camera resolutely trained on Father James as he sits in a confessional, we're allowed to eavesdrop as a faceless parishioner vows to take the priest's life in one week, as retribution for his childhood molestation by another clergyman. Though the man acknowledges that Father James is blameless, he proposes how much more shocking it'd be to kill a truly good priest than a bad one. For his intriguing inquest into religion, writer-director John Michael McDonagh (The Guard) sets up a framework right out of thrillers like D.O.A., one in which the father must solve his own murder. And the small Irish village that comprises James's parish offers a deep bench of hostile suspects to choose from: a callous doctor (Aidan Gillen); a suicidal author (M. Emmett Walsh); a philandering Ivorian auto mechanic (Isaach De Bankolé); a cuckolded butcher (Chris O'Dowd); a billionaire (Dylan Moran) who's lost his faith, and others.
God's wicked sense of humor manifests itself in all the ways he begins to pile onto his loyal servant. Father James gets a visit from his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) after a failed attempt to kill herself. Someone kills the priest's dog. His church burns down. And all while the father's life-clock keeps ticking down. Most of his congregation never fail to show up for communion, yet they all scoff at religion and its increasing irrelevance. Father James's faith is continually tested. Though weary of the backlash those in the clergy have been subjected to over sexual abuse, he never fails to accept his calling.
The black humor that permeates through every one of James's interactions with each of the town's quirky residents and the nearly sexual chemistry that charges many of his conversations with women, all amp up the series of two-handers that McDonagh builds his film out of. Each scene serves the dual purpose of illuminating a different moral quandary facing today's Catholic Church (or religion in general) while illustrating the chasm that separates a good (but all too human) priest like Father James from this complicated cross-section of society.
Will Father James's sacrifice expiate the Church's crimes? Or will it be one final, cruel admission that revenge is arbitrary and that even one's good deeds aren't sufficient to cloak one from evil? Calvary doesn't ever answer the question, but it does offer a potent platform for contemplating it.