The Catholic Church has been shaken to its very core over recent years through the irremovable stain sexual abuse has deeply imbedded into its fabric. Actions that cannot be undone have affected the lives of many innocent children, and ruined people all over the world, not to mention the level of trust in an establishment, which despite all this, remains a cultural force with which to be reckoned as it has been from its early days right on through to its present. Perhaps uniquely in some ways (and in others, not so unique) has the Catholic Church in Ireland suffered by the hands of some and brought suffering upon the hearts and minds of its people. Calvary is the latest story surrounding this reality perhaps attempting to shed some light on an otherwise tragically dark mar upon an institution that is no stranger to conflict, scandal, or strife.
The title of the film, written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, is an interesting choice. Calvary, or Golgotha, (i.e. "place of the skull") immediately brings to the Christian mind the place where Jesus Christ, according to Scripture, was crucified. Although from the outset, the film is obviously not to be a retelling of Christ's road to the Cross, one would perhaps go into a movie of such a name pondering how this instant association was intended and what, if any, extraneous meaning can be extrapolated by lending to the story told, such an already-established and powerful narrative, one that is and has been followed by millions over the course of its some two thousand years as one of the central aspects of faith. This musing directs a certain level of one's attention throughout the viewing of the film, as there is no real "savior" character that jumps out of the screen. Despite the protagonist—a virtuous priest named Father James Lavelle, (played by the phenomenal Brendan Gleeson, in a performance that assuredly deserves an Oscar nomination)—in fact possessing a handful of Christlike qualities, the circumstances and players surrounding Father James lead the viewer to question what really is good about each person. Which choices make up and define who we are? What is the gray scale of right, wrong, and murky territory? Who is at fault for which actions when it comes to simply sometimes being dealt a terrible hand? The film explores these and other tough questions, and it does carefully choose when to give answers and how much of them to deliver, leaving the viewer to decide, really, what kind of moral judgment or understanding can be placed upon individuals and reaped from situation to situation.
Starting off with a bang, the movie opens in a confessional booth, where the heard by unseen supposed penitent declares in explicitly clear terms to the priest listening on the other side of the screen that he was violently raped at the age of seven, multiple times, and in an attempt to find meaning from all the wrong done him, he is going to murder Father James, to whom he is speaking, in one week's time. He states that there is no good killing a bad priest, and that he couldn't kill his abuser anyhow, as that predator had already died some time ago. Rather, he wishes to murder one whom he declares to be a "good" priest, like Father James, because that would, in his eyes, hurt the Church more.
The story pivots easily enough between several different stories about the various occupants of a small Irish town. Father James leads the way through a riveting tale, as Gleeson hardly gets a break in screen time; he is practically in every scene. His character is a good choice to have at the center of the tale, as being a priest in a small Catholic town, it seems fitting that he believably encounters nearly everyone on a regular basis, whether in the street, at the pub, or in (or as pointed out to some, noticeably absent from) church. He serves as a kind of unity figure in the strife-ridden land, yet not all those in the story hold him in high esteem.
Among the many citizens encountered, Father James has sundry issues to tackle and souls who need guidance.
Jack Brennan (Chris O'Dowd) is a butcher in town. He is accused of beating his wife, and he's confronted by Father James about this. Simon (Isaach De Bankolé), a man from the Ivory Coast, is Jack's wife's lover, also accused of the alleged beating. Dr. Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen) taunts Father James in the local gathering spot common to all in the surrounding area—the pub—about a story of a 3-year-old child permanently damaged from a surgical procedure gone wrong, leaving the child deaf, mute, paralyzed, and blind. He likens this to the silent victims of sexual abuse. An old man, a writer, (M. Emmet Walsh), whom Father James visits in his home asks for a gun, giving some humdrum excuse, but worrying James that the man wishes to go out of this life in a manner he may think to find easier. A gay hooker named Leo (Owen Sharpe) teasingly, flippantly lays out the descriptions of men who have solicited his business throughout the years, many of whom being clergy, to which James replies with offerings of help and wondering what Leo really wants or hopes to be in life. A French woman named Teresa (Marie-Josée Croze, who strikingly resembles Sheryl Crow) is flying the body of her late, loving husband out of town to be buried elsewhere, and seeking words of wisdom and meaning from Father James. James visits in prison a man accused of multiple murders named Freddie Joyce (Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan Gleeson's real life son, who plays this small somewhat psychotic yet somehow sympathetic role with extraordinary talent and frightening poise). Joyce at first describes how he never meant to hurt "all those women" and has a tone of mockery, which subtly changes, as he starts to lose Father James's attention, to that of an ostensibly contrite heart. Yet his sincerity is questionable, considering how little information or history surrounding his case is given. A fellow priest in the village, Father Leary (David Wilmot), loses his sense of calling, as Father James yells at him that he has no integrity. A very rich millionaire named Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran, recognizable as having not aged too much since his bit part as a would-be book thief in the 1999 film Notting Hill), decides to donate €100,000 to the Church because he feels that he "should" feel guilty for wrongdoing he has done in his life, and money is no object, so he figures why not. A local girl, Veronica Brennan, (Orla O'Rourke), does cocaine in the pub bathroom, about which Father James counsels her a few days later, wondering where she sees herself going and why she thinks of throwing away life to drugs. Milo Herlihy (Killian Scott) has intermittent conversations with Father James about a feeling that his life is aimless, and figures he should either enter the military or kill himself, because he cannot find anyone to love him and feels lonely. And most fully developed, character-wise, is Fiona Lavelle, (Kelly Reilly), Father James's daughter from the marriage he had years ago, (before his wife died and he became a priest). She has returned from the big city to spend some time with her father, after a failed suicide attempt.
All of these diverse lives are presented in a kind of matter of fact manner that leaves the viewer to really fit together how each member of the film's puzzle fits into the whole. Amidst the off-kilter character development, Father James's church gets burned down, and as several of the town's residents stand and watch the flames engulf it, there is a cynicism and sense that the loss is not entirely felt by all, but rather sneered at by many. Father James also is shown throughout much of the film drinking non-alcoholic drinks until a scene that defines certain aspects of the film and his character, where he becomes incredibly intoxicated, as the day looms ever closer to where he was told in no uncertain terms that he shall meet his end.
The dramatic tension set up by the film's opening scene—it being both a harrowing revelation about the speaker's experience as well as an impending death threat upon the life of the story's protagonist—is certainly a more than effective way to keep an audience's attention. Erratically switching from storyline to storyline, the telling could get lost on viewers if it were done with any less skill. But John Michael McDonagh's ability to wrap together seemingly disparate tales into, by the time the credits roll, a very cohesive whole is quite enjoyable to watch, if hard to take at times.
Also, he uses the dramatic and pulchritudinous Irish countryside landscape in a very curious fashion. In films, despite the frequent rainfall in the country, Ireland can often be viewed through a sunny lens. Sweeping shots of the Emerald Isle give the transitioning impression between scenes that there is a lush, unmistakable beauty that ties everything wholesomely, handsomely together. However, when such shots are depicted in Calvary, there is a very different, ominous quality to them. Whether through means of darkly shaded hues or simply filming on a cloudy day, the choice angles of the filmed landscape offer a sort of pall over the undeniably luxuriant, verdant scenery. There is an augural glow to the cinematography of those shots in a way that very purposefully adds to the dreary, dreadful nature of much of the contents discussed and depicted in the film. Exquisitely executed, these tonally dark transitional moments add an accomplished artfulness that enhances the tale's chronicling well.
This movie is not for the faint of heart, as it deals with entirely gritty, dark realities. But if one is ready to go there, it's a wonderfully crafted tale that presents certain truths about pain, loss, suffering, and the hardships in life that people can go through in this world. In the Christian belief of the way that Christ conquered sin by dying on the Cross, it would appear the film hopes to show that these people's suffering too can be left at the Place of the Skull on each one of their own personal journeys to Calvary.