CALVARY, Screenplay and Direction by John Michael McDonagh (2014).
The billing of the movie CALVARY as; ‘wickedly funny’ or ‘a black comedy’ is way off the mark for me.
There are moments of wry humour throughout the film but these are mainly just momentary relief from the complex and disturbing events of this story.
The opening scene is the confessional when an unidentified parishioner issues a death threat; ‘I am going to kill you, Father’, and goes on to say he was sexually assaulted by a priest from the age of seven. The priest wryly responds, ‘that’s certainly a startling opening line.’ Brendan Gleeson plays Fr Lavelle, a priest in a small Sligo town. He has been selected as a victim because he is innocent. He is given a week to live and ‘set his house in order’. A rendezvous is set for the following Sunday after mass, on the beach.
In spite of the theological nuances of the situation, the priest adopts a secret of the confessional approach, and endeavours to go about his usual business.
Father Lavelle is a late vocation to the priesthood. He is a widower, and entered the priesthood on the death of his wife. The action of the film coincides with a visit from his adult daughter from London, who is recovering from a suicide attempt, and has come to resolve issues with her father.
It is post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, and in the midst of the shocking revelations of abuses that took place within the Catholic Church. The effect of these twin betrayals on the population is illustrated in the film by the behaviours manifested in his disillusioned flock.
There are few innocents in this film. There is young Michael, the altar boy, who captivates us in his response to Fr Lavelle when caught nicking the altar wine. It is Michael who uses his other great talent to witness and capture the final moments of the film.
The young French visitor, not affected by the local dramas, also shows herself as a shining light of faith, and there is no harm in the town’s ancient writer wanting to handle his impending demise in his own way. Young Milo consults Lavelle, not being able to make up his mind whether to commit suicide or join the army. This brief allusion to the options available to young people in Ireland is handled again wryly by Lavelle when he suggests that either of the options totally lacks wisdom, ‘why would you want to join an army to learn to kill in peacetime?’
The film’s progress parallels a number of biblical themes, hence the name Calvary, and as other spine chilling events take place we see Lavelle in his own Garden of Gethsemane. Gleeson’s Lavelle is a portrayal of genius proportions. His every minute arrests our attention and sympathy. His wry moments are welcome relief in the unrelentingly brilliant script.
As the menacing events unfold, we meet one by one those in the parish who would not wish the priest well. The butcher and his wife are having marital problems, and she seeks solace in the arms of the Ivory Coast mechanic. The publican mocks and torments the priest in his hour of near despair. The local police chief is conducting an illicit liaison with a male gypsy prostitute and his cynicism is only outdone by that of the doctor. The self styled local ‘squire’ has made his money through ruthless development dealings capitalising on the Celtic tiger, but his wife and children have left him. All these roles are played superbly, but it is Brendan Gleeson juxtaposed against the backdrop of the spectacular West Coast land and seascape and the moods of its weather that are the real stars of this film.
This partnership between Gleeson and writer-director John Michael McDonagh is a triumph. It is part of a trilogy that started with The Guard. I can’t wait for the final film of the trilogy.