Trenchant, puckish, and ruminative, Calvary is a wonderfully uncomfortable blend of high drama and dark humour; a wicked, gimlet-eyed revelation of Catholic dogma; and a compact and biting tale of a righteous man being tested by his peers and his predicament. Too ghastly in its flippancy to be simply comedy, it’s a bruising beauty of a film that earns its sour stripes.
In a single confession, Father James (Brendan Gleeson, The Guard) is informed by a congregation member about his childhood sexual abuse by a priest and his plans to kill James the following Sunday, long enough for James to get his “affairs in order.” Over the course of the week, James comforts his daughter and confronts his community regarding scurrilous ethical quandaries as sinister forces drive him to a personal Calvary.
Bringing his usual fierceness and gravity, Gleeson is remarkable in one of the best roles for one of the finest character actors around. Sharp, bemused, and compassionate, with a weary and unbending faith and a face on which fear and anger can play like a wave on the beach, the great old-lion actor dominates the film, crafting a portrait of a man increasingly resigned to his helplessness in the face of a society permanently soiled.
Pitting one stolid cleric against the whole filthy universe of base humanity, which demands he atone for the sins of the Catholic Church, writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s script is a fabulous bit of writing with the tidy structure and mythical resonance of a passion play and a strong whiff of Beckett-like absurdism. He walks a uncanny tightrope from scene to scene, from amiable comedy to black-hearted farce to heartbreaking tragedy, attempting to strike those notes within seconds, bobbing between stoic, comedic, and prickly.
Cinematographer Larry Smith captures the four-seasons-in-one-day Ireland, with its roiling surf, bracing skies, and jagged stonescapes. Unfortunately, James is the center of a cooked-up cavalcade of characters, and despite fine supporting turns by Dylan Moran, Kelly Reilly, Aiden Gillen, and Chris O’Dowd, the individuals who populate the craggy, seductive, primordial landscapes seem a bit too conveniently calculated for maximum repulsion.
Tonally, emotionally, and spiritually complex, Calvary revolves around the complicated concept of forgiveness. It offers a mordantly, caustically funny survey of small-town iniquity – an Irish fishing village soaked in drink, despair, and debauchery – that morphs imperceptibly into a lament for a fallen world. Constantly commenting on itself, looking askance in the mirror, and chuckling at its own presumption, it doesn’t confront church scandal-priestly crime; it stares into the spiritual void that has been left in its wake. What stares back is lurid, soulless, and damned.
Compared with the majority of Hollywood treacle and sentimentality, the existence of this pitch-black, gut-wrenching, thoughtful take on sacrifice and redemption feels almost like a miracle. Cruel and intense, its sober existentialism and unwavering commitment to the intelligent thorniness of its themes take Calvary far from the commercial mainstream, but close to something divine. All beating-heart fatalism and gallows humour, it will take a stout heart to deal with the hostility and venom dished out by the assortment of troubled people, as Father James calls them on their baloney, cuts through false motives, talks to them straight, loves them unswervingly.
Irrepressibly bleak and corrosively funny, strange and forlorn, hilarious and heavy as lead, Calvary is food for the soul, a painful walk in the darkness that devilishly satirizes charming Irish comedies and is often most tightly wound in the most unexpected places. A dark and profoundly funny tale of an institution failing its sheep and its best shepherds, it works like a sermon, losing one at points along the way but hitting like a ton of bricks. When it’s over, you’ll find a contemplative, ashen hush has descended on the audience: a theatre briefly turned into a church.