Every three weeks, Robby Cimino will look into some of the most ambiguous film in the movie industry.
“Calvary,” an Irish drama film directed by John Michael McDonagh, begins by rending audiences’ hearts with an ominous twist.
Father James (Brendan Gleeson)sits opposite a man behind a sliding screen in a dim confessional. The husky cadence of the anonymous man’s voice reveals a life spent beneath a heavy burden.
It was at age seven, the man says, that he was abused by a Catholic priest. Swatting at Father James’ attempts to rectify his undoing with stinging remarks, the man reveals that the offending priest has been long dead.
Father James suggests that he seek therapy. The defeated man poignantly replies, “maybe I don’t want to cope. Maybe I don’t want to learn to live with it.”
Coldly, the man proclaims that the only way to be cleansed of his troubled past is not to kill an evil priest, but instead to kill an innocent and good one, namely, Father James.
The man instructs Father James to find him along the shore of the beach the following Sunday to meet his end.
This is Gleeson’s second time starring as leading man in a McDonagh film. The first, “The Guard,” a 2011 dark Irish comedy, was wildly successful. Gleeson’s performance as Father James, the sincere, brooding priest, is quite a departure from the blundering officer he played in “The Guard.”
“Calvary,” a vignette into a week that end in a standoff between Father James and his shadowy assailant, is engaging from its start.
Framed by ethereal bluffs, crashing grey waves and patchwork pastures, the film makes the impressionistic beauty of County Sligo, located in Northwest Ireland, a spectacle. The sweeping bird’s eye views above the sea and hilly landscapes give the audience a beautiful context with which to place this twisted tale.
An array of disparate and vivid parishioners weigh on Father James’ sincere, well-meaning conscience as he makes his way through an ordinary week of tending to his community.
Among them: an artistic altar boy, a haughty business mogul, an elderly novelist, an imprisoned sociopath, a cynical, atheistic surgeon, a wanton housewife, her chiseled lover, the car mechanic and her husband, the unrefined butcher.
The butcher, Jack Brennan, played by Chris O’Dowd, whom many will recognize as Roy from the hit British sitcom “The IT Crowd,” plays a boorish man who allows his wife, Veronica (Orla O’Rourke) to cheat with Simon (Isaach De Bankolé), the car mechanic.
Brennan and Father James sneak into the meat cellar in the butcher shop to discuss the condition of his wife, who has noticeably been beaten at the hand of one of her lovers, whom Brennan insists was not him.
Although the scene may at first seem dark in its subject matter, O’Dowd peppers in some memorable one-liners that will give the audience something to laugh about during a tense moment.
Another shocking and slightly off-putting moment in the film comes when the smarmy business tycoon, Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran) an Irish comedian, urinates on a 16th century painting.
This lavish display of disregard for his most valuable possession reveals to Father James, that money means nothing to Fitzgerald.
The scene feels a bit like a non sequitur but is absurdly, almost frustratingly funny in an otherwise dark film.
Father James mediates the squabbles among the motley assortment of parishioners with selfless patience.
The elderly characters treat the priest with reverence while the younger members of the community tend to toss Father James aside, taking his service to the community entirely for granted.
Father James, in his earnest stride across the windy Irish plains, replete with a dark soutane, carries with him a past that reveals itself as he grows closer to his fate on the shore of the beach.
Before entering the seminary, Father James had been married and fathered a daughter. After his wife had passed away, Father James abandoned his first life and entered the priesthood to find salvation in his second. His adult daughter, the introspective Fiona (Kelly Reilly) after an attempted suicide, visits her father for guidance and comfort.
In a confessional with her father, Fiona references Yukio Mishima, the famed Japanese author who, before committing seppuku, notoriously wrote Jesus Christ into a list of historical suicides.
The name of the film, “Calvary” refers to the biblical site where the crucifixion of Jesus Christ occurred. In a skewed way, Father James, even after rectifying his daughter’s fragile state after her suicide attempt, is committing suicide himself by agreeing to meet at the shore with the vindictive man from the confessional.
The film is dark, poignant and a thrill to ruminate on at its conclusion.