Most movies set in Ireland make me think. “What a beautiful country. I’d love to go there, if only the people would leave first.” The thought-provoking “Calvary” is no exception.
It takes place in a seaside village populated by a trollop, her philandering husband – who plays chess at the pub with the man he knows is cuckolding him – an immigrant from Ivory Coast who explains that Irish women sometimes need to be hit (“They like it!”), a malevolent barman, a serial killer imprisoned for murdering young woman, a perverse cop, an alcoholic swindler who has laid his hands on millions of dollars and a sadistic physician who stubs out his cigarettes on the organs he removes.
The one decent human being is Father James (Brendan Gleeson), who came to his calling after his wife died. The picture opens with Father James being told in the confessional that he’s going to be murdered a week from Sunday on the beach: A man who was repeatedly raped as a boy by a priest has decided to slay the current representative of Catholic authority.
This tale might have come from Martin McDonagh, Ireland’s most celebrated playwright/screenwriter of the last 50 years and an Oscar nominee for “In Bruges” (which featured a philosophic Gleeson making a different kind of sacrifice). Instead, “Calvary” was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, who has a little more warmth than his brother but almost as bleak a view of life.
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Father James knows who threatened him. But his lack of evidence and his respect for the confessional prevent him from a denunciation, though the assassin-to-be shows no feelings of guilt. The movie’s not a whodunit or even a “Will he do it?” When the murderer gives Father James a little more than a week to put his spiritual house in order, he’s not blowing smoke. (Calvary, also known as Golgotha, was the place where Christ was crucified.)
So the priest reconciles with his daughter (Kelly Reilly), who has tried to commit suicide by slashing her wrists and has come to visit her father. He comforts a novelist (M. Emmet Walsh), who’s trying to finish his last book before dying. And he offers counsel to people who repeatedly mock or reject it, emphasizing the Christ-like parallel.
John Michael McDonagh pays homage to the roots of the Catholic Church while suggesting it’s inevitably doomed, at least in his native land. James understands the real world – he lived in it until he was middle-aged – and listens with patience and tolerance to every kind of sinner. He can forgive the sincerely repentant and uplift the afflicted while setting judgment aside. But what hope for him is there in such a village, where more than one person looks at his daughter’s wrists and says, “The old mistake! You’re supposed to cut down.”
The film has fine performances by people you don’t expect to see in these roles: Comedian Dylan Moran as the hollow financier, Chris O’Dowd (“Bridesmaids”) as a butcher who may be beating his wife, Domhnall Gleeson (Bill Weasley from the “Harry Potter” series and Brendan’s son) as the serial killer.
Brendan Gleeson, massive and quiet, bulks over the movie like the mountains we see near the seashore. He looks older than his years (he’ll be 60 in March) and seems to have seen a vast amount of life, most of it bad. As Father James goes doggedly about his business, convinced of its necessity and futility, he becomes a fully tragic figure.