Calvary (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Calvary (2014)

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Father James is a busy man.  In addition to his duties at the church, he investigates local disputes, petty crimes, and tries to resolve conflicts in an amicable manner.  During Sunday confession a man enters his booth, tells Father James about his rape as a child, and gives the startled priest one week before he will kill Father James.  Calvary is the second feature-film written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (The Guard).

To the groundFor a purportedly Christian nation, we don't produce nearly enough art that deals with the tricky philosophical business that comes with the faith.  There's a bustling market for Christian films, yet most of them deal with doctrinal slights instead of the difficult task of actually living a good Christian life.  Most of the time those problems are solved by middle class people who learn that with a bit of patience and the right amount of money, a good Christian lesson can be learned by all.

Being a good Christian is difficult.  I may not have the faith anymore, but understand that living a life of pure forgiveness is almost impossible and aiming for that life is one of the most pure ethical goods we are capable of.  Calvary, John Michael McDonagh's follow-up to the gleefully amoral The Guard, is more than up to the challenge.  This is a film that shuns, but not without careful consideration, the material components of modern worship and the too-easy way our spiritual leaders slip into judgmental belittling instead of guiding others through their faith.  It is not simply a matter of turning the other cheek, but knowing when true Christian forgiveness means paying for the sins of others, the sins that continue because of silence.

Calvary's greatest strength is in McDonagh's tight screenplay.  Barely seconds into the opening conversation between Father James (Brendan Gleeson) and an unseen man in the confessional, Father James hears that another priest raped this man for years as a child, and even though he knows that Father James had nothing to do with it, the man is going to kill Father James in one week.  Is this a bit contrived?  Yes, but to the film's benefit as we see that Father James is not one to go about pointing his fingers in baseless accusation of everyone that he meets, but is given an opportunity to reevaluate his role within the community and whether he is leading by a good Christian example or not.

Dry humor and bleak demeanors meet pitch-perfect performances from terrific character actors in the many tense and funny exchanges between Father James and the community.

Dry humor and bleak demeanors meet pitch-perfect performances from terrific character actors in the many tense and funny exchanges between Father James and the community.

This quick opening sets the stakes, and the relationship-building moments that follow have their already tense staging enhanced by the knowledge that someone in this community is set to kill Father James.  McDonagh keeps the pace tight throughout these sequences as well, introducing the priest as something of an all-purpose social handyman in this community.  He has to solve violent disputes without getting involved, addresses different questions of morality brought up to him by his neighbors, and tries to get everyone to hold themselves up to a higher example.  Father James' test is twofold, the first issue is that there aren't too many people in this community that are interested in being better than they already are, the second is that he has a nasty habit of condescending their problems almost immediately after hearing about them.

The scenario is tense enough with Father James doing himself no favors with his blunt wit, but results in moments of delicious bleak comedy.  Some of this has to due with the way the characters carry themselves, like the venomous Dr. Harte (Aidan Gillen) who demeans the priest's tools as mere "totems" and matter-of-factly dismisses himself from conversations with, "Excuse me father, I have to go kill somebody."  McDonagh's dialogue might seem unnecessarily cruel in other hands, but with pros like Gleeson and Gillen to perform it comes off as damaging shorthand among different philosophical stands - like Father James' faith versus Dr. Harte's dubious ethical pragmatism.  But when the time comes for Father James to make observations, he does things like demean the sole black man in town's concerns about unequal treatment with,  "Yeah, black people, white people, blah blah blah."  McDonagh is not interested in how a worldly priest would respond to these people, but how a man who still has a need to grow will.

Even moments that just seem to be present for comedic value have an ethical point, like a conversation between the elder Father James and the younger Father Leary (David Wilmot) about the latter needing to acquaint himself with felching after an unfortunate confessional experience.  They're funny, but all deal with Father James perceiving that all the people around him are not committing to their virtues or their vices.  Father James' great sin is one of pride, thinking that he is one of the few people in this town that is living with any degree of integrity.  The base scenario, as well as a subplot involving Father James' suicidal daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), is about how the good priest realizes that he has been as ethically inconsistent as the rest.  No matter how hilarious or bleak the scenarios are, they all reflect on Father James in a different light.

Gleeson, clad in his black vestment and long beard, is a striking figure throughout the sparse community of Calvary.

Gleeson, clad in his black vestment and long beard, is a striking figure throughout the sparse community of Calvary.

McDonagh wisely strips the village and church of any distracting accoutrements.  Even the local party spot is spare and its only crazy decoration is wallpaper.  In this way Father James becomes a dark presence no matter where he goes, a reminder of the morality that he is supposed to be instilling in these people but failing.  The shot of surfers disappearing into the waves at the beginning reflect this, as they are just two more souls lost into an immoral life that he is not honestly able to lead them to.  Father James becomes an almost mythical figure because of this framing, someone who the townspeople whisper about, and those whispers reach a crescendo because of his actions in Calvary.

So what of the great moral choices at the end?  We know that Father James is not in this vocation because he felt a compelling need his whole life to become a priest.  The question is, and this applies to everyone in the town, when tragedy causes you to evaluate your life in a new way, are you able to be honest with yourself about the steps you take forward or hide in a veil of your devising?  Calvary answers this question by directly addressing the role of the Catholic church in concealing the rape and molestation of children.  How can Father James say that he can lead others to virtue if he cannot face the evil in his profession?  But Calvary's answer is not simple, as there is no grand speech that will make years of abuse go away, and without that acknowledgement the church is doomed to crumble into a useless artifact.

Calvary turns to Christianity.  The last moments, as they arrive, are as an important declaration of love and faith as any sermon in church and is that much more powerful because there is no grandstanding, no reward for each moral choice.  The dark clouds, always circling over the town, won't part to reveal Heaven above.  But what his choices might do is inspire those who come after him to seek a new way.  Calvary shows that there is some painful hilarity in pursuing the noble path, but that does not make it any easier.

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Tail - CalvaryCalvary (2014)

Screenplay written and directed by John Michael McDonagh.
Starring Brendan Gleeson.

Posted by Andrew

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