Calvary is a very ambitious little movie that tries to tackle a lot of weighty issues, and seems to be an exploration of its writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s complicated and untenable feelings towards the Catholic Church. Most of the characters in this movie harbor ill will and hostility in their varying emotional reactions towards the institution itself, as they question what it means to have faith in modern society. There are no easy answers in this film, just the raising of a lot of questions and expressions of anger, exposed through the prism of what’s a rather perplexing film at times, structured in such a way that appears mostly allegorical, reveling alternatively in moments of black comedy, philosophical query and morality play.
It occasionally bites off more than it can chew, but the movie is never less than compelling as it moves briskly through these issues. Brendan Gleeson (who also starred in McDonagh’s last feature The Guard) is a solid, sympathetic anchor as the good priest of a small town in Ireland, who’s immediately faced with a threat of danger in the film’s opening scene. Someone we cannot see is speaking to him in confession, telling him he was raped by a priest for five years as a child. The perpetrator is dead, which leaves Gleeson stumped as to what to tell the man, who’s seeking vengeance. The man then firmly tells Gleeson that he’s going to kill him in one week, leaving him just enough time to get his affairs in order, and the priest agrees to meet him on the set day. Gleeson is rather calm about his impending death, and spends the week going about his duties, seeking to council the various townspeople with all of their personal troubles, as well as deal with the higher-ups in his own parish. He’s also paid a visit from his 30-year-old daughter (Kelly Reilly), who’s just recovering from a failed suicide attempt over a bad relationship (he became a priest after he was widowed).
The priest is a very human figure, a sympathetic and good man who perhaps represents any affection McDonagh still has, at least for individuals within the Church. Unfortunately, despite not suffering any particular crisis of faith himself, Gleeson finds himself at odds with the changed attitudes toward priests and the church itself. Most of the people he councils are disillusioned and suspicious of either his intentions or his usefulness. It’s this part of the film that feels most allegorical, as even though the priest is human and specific, the various citizens of this village are not, most representing some bigger, weightier theme that’s currently pressing on the outside world. These people exist on the level of metaphor, serving simply to have conversations with the priest that illuminate the view of the outside- there’s the physically abused and casually promiscuous woman, the financial criminal who cares nothing about so-called sins of ownership and takes pride in his escape from justice, the convicted serial killer who experiences no remorse, the immigrant facing prejudice, etc. All of them have personal grievances with the church for one reason or another, and none of them can be helped despite the priest’s best attempts. He has success with one devout Frenchwoman when personal tragedy strikes her life, but it’s not enough to stop the church from literally burning as the townspeople watch with little concern.
The movie strikes a strange tonal mix as it hits on some very broad humor within these interactions, including some characters that feel so big it’s as if they wandered in from another film (I’m thinking of the extremely cartoonish male gigolo who also bears a grudge against the church and takes it out on Gleeson). Another character who’d seem more at home in a Neil Simon play is the detached and unconcerned fellow priest who shares the parish with Gleeson, although his ignorance about modern day problems plays for genuine laughs. For every scene that doesn’t work, there’s another that’s extremely powerful, such as the moment where we can feel Gleeson’s despair when an alarmed parent practically rips his child away from standing on the same street as Gleeson, fearing the collar of the priesthood on sight, and we recognize there was a time when that would have been a moment of reassurance. There are no people in this world that exist in their own universe, giving it the effect of feeling a bit like a play, as villagers walk into the frame, say their piece, and leave with various monologues in tow. There are also no answers to McDonagh’s grievances about the world, it simply feels like a moment in time that we’ve all gotten used to, as we try to figure out where to go from here in regards to organized religion. As far as that goes, Calvary is a very timely examination of society’s relationship to the church at this current moment, and a fascinating one at that. It’s also one of the most unique and thought provoking films you’ll experience this year, and one of the most relevant.