Friday, January 02, 2015

"Calvary": review

[WARNING: Major, major spoilers. I'm sorry, but I can't do a proper review that explores the movie's issues without revealing a crucial plot point.]

"Calvary" stars Brendan Gleeson (a veteran of four Harry Potter films as well as the quirky black comedy "In Bruges") as father James Lavelle, the priest of a sparsely populated rural/suburban parish in Ireland. Most of the movie is about Father James's interactions with his parishioners, as well as with other local characters, including an aging American author (M. Emmet Walsh, whom I had thought dead), an atheist doctor named Frank (Aidan Gillen), a Frenchwoman (Canadian actress Marie-Josée Croze) whose husband is killed in a car accident, a pompous-yet-desolate rich man named Michael Fitzgerald (comedian Dylan Moran), and James's own occasionally suicidal daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly of "Flight" fame), born before James became a priest. What lends the story urgency, however, is how it begins: in a confessional, a gritty voice grates to Father James, "I first tasted semen when I was seven." The moment is initially played for comedy, but this soon curdles into something approaching horror: the layperson (Chris O'Dowd) confesses his fury at the Church because he had been repeatedly raped and brutalized by a priest when he was a child. The man then reveals his plan: he means to kill Father James the following Sunday—not because James is a bad priest who reminds the man of the clergyman who had molested him (a man of the cloth who is now dead), but precisely because James is a good priest, innocent of wrongdoing, which will make the murder all the more powerful a statement.

The film then proceeds in segments, each segment introduced with a title card: "Monday," "Tuesday," etc., leading all the way up to the fateful Sunday. Father James has a chance, at one point, to avoid his fate, to escape from Ireland, but he doesn't take it. What follows is something of a paradox: James continues his ministry as always, even though he knows he's likely to die and has a good idea of who his soon-to-be killer is, so what we're witnessing is something like the final days of a death-row inmate, but an inmate who is innocent of the sins for which he is to be killed. Two major questions, then, haunt us as the story progresses: who is the murderer, and will Father James actually die?

It's impossible to continue this review without noting that the movie's very title is a spoiler: Calvary refers, after all, to Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, on which Jesus was, according to scripture, crucified along with two criminals. "Calvary" actually begins with a Calvary-related quote attributed to Saint Augustine: "Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned." And like Augustine's quote, the movie walks a strange but compelling knife-edge between comedy and tragedy, switching its moods in a mercurial, but never quite bipolar, manner. So it's safe to extrapolate that, if Father James, the innocent priest, is headed toward his own personal Calvary, he's unlikely to survive to the end of the film. And you'd be right to think so: James doesn't. His sacrifice is, I think, the necessary conclusion of the Christ-like trajectory laid out by both the character of the murderer and the character of the priest in question.

James is world-weary; he's seen it all, his knowledge of the world is vast, and he doesn't suffer fools gladly, including foolish fellow priests like Father Leary (David Wilmot). He's a student of phronesis, i.e., practical wisdom, and he represents what's good about the priesthood. Alas, the Church has a history of sins, and James's parishioners often refuse to let these sins go, especially the sin of sexual molestation, because of the pain such transgressions have caused and are still causing in the hearts of the people. During James's final week of ministry, his dealings with those around him evoke many of the film's interwoven themes: marital infidelity, institutional violence (in the form of Church abuse or government cutbacks), the morality of joining the army in peacetime, and coping with random and senseless tragedies like a car accident. The cinematography of "Calvary" alternates between scenes of James with his flock and gorgeous wide shots of Ireland in all its ancient splendor. Ireland becomes the cosmic backdrop on which the drama of James's little town plays itself out: the cheating, the gun-borrowing, the donnybrooks, the church-burnings and, finally, a lone death on the beach. We're left to ponder the bigness and the smallness of it all.

From a religious-studies perspective, "Calvary" comes across as an articulation of both abstract religious issues and concrete praxis: the movie invites us to witness the life of ministry, to understand—albeit in an occasionally black-comic vein—the trials and travails of a parish priest. Gleeson's performance anchors us in this reality; Father James comes to life, and we can sympathize with him, thanks to Gleeson's deft portrayal. Like the issues it examines, the film is a marriage of contradictions—one massive coincidentia oppositorum. It occasionally spills over into exaggerated, Hollywood-style unrealism, as when James shoots up a local bar, but for the most part I'd say that, as cartoonish as some of the film's moments can be, the overall effect is authentic on an emotional and spiritual level. Other reviewers have called "Calvary" a "passion play," a judgment that interprets Father James as a sort of Christ-figure. I'm tempted to agree: James dies for other people's sins; he's an innocent victim; he's known throughout the town as a pure man of righteousness; his only weapon is his sincerity. This makes him a prime candidate for Christ-figure status (see my discussion of Christ-figures here). But in the end, I see James as what he merely is: only human, only striving to live in a spirit of imitatio Christi. Only a man, and therefore precious.

ADDENDUM: An intelligent review from a different perspective can be found here.



John from Daejeon said...

While I did enjoy "Calvary" quite a while back, you gravely inure Brendan Gleeson's acting reputation by not listing a little film of his (and Jon and John's) well above those of his four Harry Potter films and "In Bruges."

I would even list his recent The Grand Seduction re-make above those Potter films.

I might not care to visit Pikclehead anytime soon again, but I guess I'm definitely revisiting Dublin, South Lotts, and Ranelagh some time this weekend to see a masterpiece once more.

If you get a chance, watch "The General" and see for yourself how it makes a more than perfectly fitting opening chapter to the masterful bookend of "Calvary" to his mostly brilliant career.

Kevin Kim said...

I think you meant "injure," not "inure." And I didn't injure his reputation one bit. Please don't overdramatize. The simple fact is that I can only go by what I've seen: I've seen the Potter films and "In Bruges," and his brief turn in "Edge of Tomorrow," but little else of his.

SJHoneywell said...

This is one I'd really like to see, so I haven't read too carefully through this, not wanting the spoilers.

You should track down 28 Days Later for some quality Gleeson, though. For what it's worth, I love him in In Bruges.

Kevin Kim said...


Do come back and compare notes with me after you've seen "Calvary" and done your own review. I'm always fascinated by where you and I agree and where we diverge.

John from Daejeon said...

Some comments directly from the man about his varied acting career.

It seems I forgot when writing my original comment, but his best acting performance wasn't in film. Not many performances of any sort give me both goose bumps and bring tears to my eyes, but his did just that.