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Calvary

D: John Michael McDonagh / 100m

Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aiden Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach De Bankolé, M. Emmet Walsh, Marie-Josée Croze, Domhnall Gleeson, David Wilmot, Pat Shortt, Gary Lydon, Killian Scott, Orla O’Rourke, Leo Sharpe

Calvary opens with a confession, not of sins committed, but of a sin to be carried out.  The priest hearing the confession, Father Lavelle (Gleeson), is flippant at first, then astounded as the proposed sin is murder, and the victim will be himself.  The parishioner was abused as a child by another priest (now dead) and wants his revenge; what better way to offend God than to kill a good priest, rather than a bad one?  It’s a powerful opening, and one that is bookended by an equally powerful conclusion.  What occurs in between, in the week leading up to the proposed murder, is often wryly humorous, sometimes emotionally uplifting, occasionally absurd, but alas, rarely convincing.

The main problem Calvary has is what to do with Father Lavelle once his death sentence is announced.  His superior, Bishop Montgomery (David McSavage), offers no real support or advice, and the priest he shares duties with, Father Leary (Wilmot), is so ineffectual he eventually leaves the parish.  A visit from his daughter, Fiona (Reilly), reveals his inadequacy a a biological father – she’s recovering from a suicide attempt and has been estranged from him since the death of her mother – and while some inroads are made in their relationship, his interaction with the rest of the village is less successful.  As he alienates more and more people, his intended murderer’s assertion that he’s a good priest becomes more and more untenable, and his failings as a man and a priest are increasingly highlighted.  This is a man whose own demons, once banished, are coming back to claim him.  (There’s an argument here that the man planning to kill him would know all this, making his choice of Lavelle as a “good priest” less a case of conviction, and more likely, of convenience.)

Calvary - scene

But while Father Lavelle continually fails to understand or support his parishioners – wife-beater and butcher Jack (O”Dowd), his errant wife Veronica (O’Rourke) and her lover Simon (De Bankolé), local businessman Fitzgerald (Moran), angry doctor Frank Harte (Gillen), local policeman Inspector Stanton (Lydon) and his rent boy lover Leo (Sharpe) – the audience is left wondering just how he managed to become a priest in the first place.  The number of ways in which he misunderstands the villagers is increasingly impressive, but becomes tiring after a (very short) while, so when he comforts the widow (Croze) of a French tourist who’s been killed in a car accident, it’s great to find he can be appropriately sympathetic and contrite (the movie has several quiet moments like this one, but it’s by far the most effective).

As events conspire to push Lavelle closer to the edge of a breakdown, and violence becomes a bitter factor in his involvement with the village, Calvary becomes a much darker movie and one that seems determined to offer no ray of hope for its embattled cleric.  Gleeson is a perfect choice for the dour, embittered character he portrays, a man who has come late to the priesthood, and now finds himself the target of someone’s hatred of the institution he represents.  In the hands of director and screenwriter McDonagh, this premise should have been the basis for a trenchant examination of faith, responsibility and social exclusion.  What it serves up instead is a treatise on bad decisions and atonement, with unresolved guilt as a side order.  Aside from the village’s odd assortment of inhabitants, there’s little in terms of the drama taking place that we haven’t seen before (and with more sharply defined characters).  It’s not that Calvary is a bad film per se, just that it promises much more than it delivers.

Rating: 7/10 – strong performances and beautiful location photography side, Calvary doesn’t quite draw the audience in as planned; still worth watching though as there are few movies out there that take these kind of risks with both the material and its performances.

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