In recent years there has been a lot of criticism directed towards the Catholic Church because of the widespread abuse to children by priests. Especially within Ireland, this has always been something of a joke but new revelations brought renewed condemnation towards the Church. The reasons for this are many but some of the biggest reasons include the widespread nature of the incidents and the fact that much of the abuse was said to have been made known to high ranking officials within the Church and all that was done was to brush the subject under the carpet. It had been a cover up, pure and simple.
This is the basic background for John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary but you wouldn’t know that from the trailer. In the trailer and much of the promotion for the movie, the focus is on Brendan Gleeson as Father James Lavelle, a priest in a small town in County Sligo. One day he approached in confession and told that he is going to be murdered. The murder is explained in the trailer as happening to Father Lavelle because he is innocent but the true reason comes out within the first five minutes of the film starting. The murderer was abused by a priest as a child and he explains that no one would care if he killed a bad priest.
The film seemed to be a murder mystery type of story and that element does remain. The story is something of a locked room whodunit. Usually in this type of plot, someone dies first and then the focus shifts from one character to the next as their motives and abilities are analysed. Instead, Calvary presents us with a death threat and we watch as Gleeson’s character interacts with the individuals in the community each in turn. Father Lavelle is given a week to get his life in order and during the time between almost every scene holds a sense of peril and curiosity.
Father Lavelle knows the killer but it is hidden from the viewer. And all the characters are suspect. There is a sub-plot with Orla O’Rourke’s Veronica Brennan who has been given a black eye. She plays it off as part of sexual exploration and domination but Father Lavelle confronts both her husband, played by Chris O’Dowd, and her lover, acted by Isaach de Bankolé. O’Dowd’s character, Jack, is a butcher and doesn’t take the matter very seriously but Bankolé’s Simon seems to take offense and is the far more aggressive of the two. Other characters include Aiden Gillen as an atheistic doctor, Dylan Moran as a brash, rich businessman who straddles the fence between wanting salvation and mocking the very thing he thinks will save him, and Father Lavelle’s daughter, played by Kelly Reilly.
As each day ticks by, the film attempts to dissolve the growing tension with humour. O’Dowd is glib throughout and Gillen’s morbid humour makes sense for a doctor. Even his daughter has her moments as many characters comment on her beauty, usually to be met with a timely and pointed curse. Of course, this is a black comedy so it isn’t intended to be a laugh a minute kind of film. There are moments where you will genuinely laugh out loud but much of the humour is derived from the existence of this good priest in a secular community awaiting his death. No one else has a clue, and they continue to berate and derail his good efforts even as he edges closer to the final day.
However, the film is still a very sad portrayal of what religion has become in Ireland. For some of the characters Father Lavelle is a source of comfort and advice but in other scenes, to those same characters he almost completely dismissed. O’Rourke and Gillen’s characters are the worst offenders, and it is easy to pity the priest as he tries to make a difference but finds himself to be ineffectual for the most part. Coupled with the burning down of his church and the slaughter of his pet dog, the film systematically tortures Father Lavelle from the outset to the end.
One bright spot in the film is Lavelle’s reconciliation with his daughter who has survived a suicide attempt. It is implied this is not her first attempt and is later revealed that Father Lavelle joined the priesthood following the death of his wife, leaving his daughter to feel abandoned by both parents. A significant conversation takes place where they talk about sin and Father Lavelle suggests that “…there’s too much talk about sins and not enough talk about virtues.” He names forgiveness as the least considered virtue. This follows after his attempt to escape and run from his problems. There is a sense that he is going back because he still believes that the murderer can be saved.
Father Lavelle also entertains the idea of fighting back. An elderly writer requests that the priest bring him a gun so that, when the time comes, he can end his own life. The priest does obtain the gun from a local police officer and carries it with him though out the movie. His faith obviously does not condone its use but Lavelle struggles with the notion of willingly going to one’s death. In another scene, one parishioner considers joining the army, humorously because he can’t get laid, and they debate the command ‘thou shall not kill’. When it comes to defence, the priest admits “that’s a tricky one”.
McDonagh’s intention here does not seem to be to make jokes at the expense of the Catholic Church’s failures or at death in general. With a stronger grasp on Christian values than the recent Noah film, this movie recognises the good that can be done in a community by someone who genuinely cares about people. There seems to be a urging within the film not to write off the entire priesthood because of the bad priests but to relish and encourage the work of the good. As profound as it is though, the acting isn’t always on par and the comedy in the foreground doesn’t always mesh with the tragedy in the back. Powerful and provocative film, this may not be the film you expected to see but it is a film worth seeing.