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Every bit as beautiful as is it daring and bold, John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary is a glimpse inside the life of the modern Catholic Priest.
Calvary opens with a startling confession made inside Father James’ (Brendan Gleeson) confessional, which he receives with an unnerving calm. Seeking advice from only his Bishop, Father James tells no one what he has learned, and simply leaves his fate in God’s hands. Calmly going about his “final” days, and keeping his vows of confessional secrecy, Father James must solemnly bear the weight of his perceived doom.
As the week rolls by, each day is marked with a placard; seemingly serving as a doomsday clock for the Father. Father James goes about his day-to-day routine, visiting parishioners and assisting with advice with his uniquely dark sense of humor. Presiding over a small Irish town, he deals with a range of complex issues and worries; many of which seem utterly bizarre. Sporting a wide array of bizarre and tormented characters, Father James’ parish flood the audience with a host of information that is nearly impossible to take in upon first viewing.
Brendan Gleeson does a remarkable job as the wise cracking Father James. As a man who entered the priesthood after having been married, he has plenty of worldly knowledge to share with his flock. Oftentimes foul-mouthed, and certainly forthright, he gives his honest opinions in order to guide others into making sound, moral decisions. While he wholeheartedly knows he cannot serve everyone in the town, his kindhearted nature makes him incredibly approachable and a confidant for the whole village.
Alongside Gleeson is the demure yet assertive Kelly Reilly playing Father James’ daughter Fiona. Having recently survived a suicide attempt, Fiona’s life seems to be empty. Still able to joke lovingly with her father, the two seem to skirt major issues in their relationship, namely the passing of her mother/Father James’ wife. Serving as the main turning point in their relationship, it is only ever discussed once, yet the surrounding dialogue and impeccable acting tell an unseen story. Backed by some fantastically quirky supporting actors, Gleeson and Reilly get to interact with all facets of life that are somehow present in this small rural Irish town. Atheistic doctors, gay prostitutes and rampant adultery are just a small sampling of the town’s overall debauchery; every ounce of which, Father James takes on unflinchingly.
While Calvary is only John Michael McDonagh’s second full-length feature, he brings with him the skill and aptitude of a veteran filmmaker. Starting his film with such a startling revelation, he is free to calmly tailor the rest of the film to the lead character’s demeanor. Beautifully meandering between the many house calls Father James makes throughout his week, and the time he spends with his daughter, the film never loses its stride. Breaking up the action with absolutely stunning shots of the Irish countryside, McDonagh really showcases his film’s backdrop. Just as vast and vivid as the landscape, his story is multifaceted and immensely deep. He makes some bold assertions with the story, that add an air of modernity to the ever-increasing obsolescence of the Catholic Church. McDonagh paints Father James as an incredibly compassionate figure that lives out the example set for him by Jesus to the best of his abilities. He is compassionate, forgiving and patient even in the face of so much inner strife.
Surprisingly enough, the film does not come across as overtly religious. Obvious allegories with Christ aside, Calvary uses religion more so as a character’s frame or reference, and not so much as a “faith booster” for the wayward souls of the Catholic Church. Father James is a good man, who has a troubled past, yet he chooses to be the best man he can be. In treating everyone with compassion and respect, he sets a paramount example of what society should strive to be. Uniquely funny, yet possessing a dark and menacing tone, the film makes its audience chuckle, while also asking them to reflect upon their own lives and their interactions with others.
Completely refreshing in its take on life and the roles religion plays in society, Calvary is one of the best films of the year.