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Posts Tagged ‘Calvary’

For a while I was slightly aware that this year was looking a bit lightweight, both in terms of the number of films I’d been to see, and their overall quality – I was a good half-dozen behind where I’d been at the same point in 2013. However, having seen five films in the last fortnight, with at least two more coming in the next week, these concerns feel less pressing. It has also helped that most of these movies have been pretty good in one way or another: certainly, none of them has been a total disaster.

Particularly outstanding, in many respects, was John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary. The McDonagh brothers (John Michael’s sibling is Martin, writer-director of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths) are rapidly establishing themselves as film-makers of real stature, and Calvary may be the best film one of them has yet produced.

calvary

Brendan Gleeson plays Father James Lavelle, a Catholic priest in the Republic of Ireland. While hearing confessions one day, an unidentified parishioner reveals that he was abused as a child by another priest, now dead. As an act of retribution, the man now intends to kill Lavelle, reasoning that no-one will bat an eyelid at the death of a guilty priest, but the murder of a good and innocent man as punishment for the sins of another will attract everybody’s attention. The would-be killer thoughtfully gives Lavelle a week to set his affairs in order.

That Lavelle does not immediately consider if he is justified in calling in the police, or contemplate skipping town entirely, tells you something of the tone of Calvary, which is measured and thoughtful throughout. The film follows the priest through the week and observes his interactions with various members of his flock, who are a colourful bunch, as well as his troubled daughter (Kelly Reilly) – she is the product of a marriage which ended prior to Lavelle’s taking the cloth. All the time the viewer is aware that a clock is ticking, but Lavelle concerns himself with a troubled marriage, or a prison visit, or giving solace to a recently-widowed woman: simply with being a priest, in other words.

And it seems to me that this is what Calvary is actually about: the question of the place of religion in the modern world. The setting of the film is clearly contemporary – this is an Ireland ravaged by the wake of the financial crisis, where the church is under siege from accusations of corruption and much worse. As a source of moral authority, Lavelle finds himself constantly challenged and mocked, both by nominal Catholics and atheists, while even his decision to follow his vocation and join the priesthood is criticised by his daughter. ‘Your time has gone,’ he is explicitly told at one point.

This of course feeds into the idea of the film as an allegory for the story of Christ, which it is obviously intended to be (the title and the premise make this clear) – but it’s also a character study of Lavelle, and the question of exactly what motivates him. By potentially risking death, is the priest simply trying to justify his own existence? Does some part of him actively seek martyrdom? The film is intelligent enough not to offer easy answers (nor, indeed, does it entirely resolve its own plot, which some people may grumble about).

The last film from Gleeson and McDonagh was The Guard, to which Calvary bears something of a resemblance – community figure in rural Ireland with troubled female relative, literate script, various oddball supporting characters, somewhat offbeat conclusion – but this is a much more serious and thoughtful film that isn’t afraid to deal with some difficult subject matter. It’s by no means totally gloomy, but it’s certainly not a comedy either.

This is despite the presence of a few actors best-known for comic work: Dylan Moran and Chris O’Dowd both appear, along with Aidan Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson, and various people who were also in The Guard (Gleeson Junior is issued with an unflattering brown wig to reduce his resemblance to his dad). All the performances are good, but dominating the film with a monumental portrayal of simple humanity and decency is Brendan Gleeson. In Lavelle, he and McDonagh have created another richly three-dimensional human being: I fear that the decision to release Calvary at Easter may mean the film is forgotten about when it comes to next year’s awards season, for once again Gleeson is deserving of some sort of recognition for his work here.

But, on the other hand, many people may just regard this as a child-abuse drama about the Catholic church in Ireland, and stay away on principle. This would be a great shame, for Calvary is much more than that. It’s as complete and as satisfying a film as any I’ve seen this year, and managed to be thought-provoking, moving, funny, and occasionally upsetting to watch. Well worth seeking out.

 

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