It should come as no surprise to anyone that the image of the Catholic Church has changed in the past decade. Stories of bad priests are in large supply, rampant corruption in the hierarchy, you name it. Where that leaves the good priests is hard to say, and that assumes there are any left.
“Calvary” is a strange, even perplexing examination of one such priest facing his final days on earth. Not anything caused by sickness or some unforeseen event, but in a promise from one of his parishioners. Brendan Gleeson stars as Father James, a tired and all too human priest in a small town in Ireland. In his small town he’s given one week to get his affairs in order before he’s killed by one of the many victims of the church’s foul history. He’s given the role of representation for the church as an entity, rather than being deserving of such a fate as a man. The movie follows him as he attempts to help his daughter and the other townsfolk in what little time he has left, facing their dismissal of him and all that he represents. In doing so, we are given a unique examination of the fall of the church’s image in the eyes of world.
The town in which Father James lives and works is populated not by characters, but by metaphorical representations. There’s a rich, despondent former executive banker, an atheistic doctor, a bar owner being persecuted by the banks, a cheating housewife, an immigrant minority, an imprisoned killer, and a few others on the fringe. This presents an odd and even play-esque atmosphere, where the human character of Father James is forced to confront all aspects of society and represent a system that he doesn’t feel he’s adequate to represent. In fact, he appears to be the only true human in the town, aside from his troubled visiting daughter. With her he bonds over their past and her uncertain future.
The movie plays out as a series of conversations and episodes as he moves from day to day, dealing with every side of society. This is not something people generally welcome, as they seem to go out of their way to challenge him and rile him up. It shows a stance of the declining church as something that not only doesn’t bother people, but pleases some. During a scene in which the church is burned down, not only does no one seem bothered by the act of arson, but no one even bothers to mention it until the building is well engulfed in flames and past the point of salvaging.
Brendan Gleeson gives a strong and character driven performance as the priest, showing traces of his humanity that can’t help but break through his tough demeanor. He’s experienced tragedy, lived through a lot of pain, and does as much as he’s able despite how heavily the world weighs down on him. People shun and mistrust him as they do the church as an institution. A father is thrown into a rage when he finds Father James innocently walking alongside his daughter on his way to the beach. Taking on the sins of the church is a lot for one man, and it's in this that the movie becomes vague and ambiguous.
On the one hand, Father James is a highly sympathetic and developed character. The rest of the townspeople are not. They merely represent their class as they expect him to. In one conversation with the doctor (Aiden Gillen), he actually says what he is as a character, referencing his role and that of the priest’s. For me, I wonder as to how writer/director John Michael McDonagh feels about the fall of the church (at least in the public eye). Does he lament its downfall, join the apathetic view of his characters, or is he more detached from it as the priest seems to be. Father James has a strong personal faith, but when it comes to the crimes of the church he is silent. It’s the one area the movie doesn’t tread when it comes to his views, and when the question is finally asked of him, it’s too late.
“Calvary” is a very interesting and thought-provoking movie. It carries a lot of weighty themes and attempts to balance them in a staged and stylish way. While not necessarily going to provide you with answers or anything concrete, it’s certain to prompt discussion.