Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is a likable, down to earth ‘good priest’. The film opens with a scene at a confession booth, where an anonymous parishioner details disturbingly the sexual abuse inflicted on him by a priest as a child. The parishioner tells Father James that he will kill him the next Sunday. His reason being that it would a greater loss for the Church to lose a good clergyman than a bad one.
Working chronologically, day-by-day, ‘Calvary’ focuses primarily on the central character. Throughout, he gives his energy trying to offer counsel and help to his parishioners, whom we find out immediately are quite troubled and conflicted.
The local butcher Jack Brennan (Chris O Dowd) is supposedly beating his adulterous wife Veronica (Orla O’Rourke), who is in turn having an affair with Simon (Isaach De Bankolé), an Ivorian car mechanic. The butcher is seemingly tolerant of this, and his wife is lustful, depraved, insatiable, dysfunctional, selfish, her principles based solely on impulses. She makes crude attempts to seduce Father James himself, through pseudo-sexualised, sadomasochistic allusions to kneeling, prostration and submission.
Bishop Garret Montgomery (David MacSavage) answers the concerns of Father Lavelle with oblivion. Clarifying that the position of the Church on confession is not synonymous with that of the greater legal system, he is devoid of genuine advice as to whether James should contact the police. Father Leary (David Wilmot), with whom Father James shares the parochial house is not tyrannically corrupt, but he is quite cowardly, the type that would turn a blind eye to avoid a tense scenario.
Fiona (Kelly Reilly) is the daughter of James. She has a history of self harm and suicide attempts. Her presence in Calvary is one that offers a barrier of warmth amidst the coldness and darkness that surrounds him. Though this facade is only another conduit for the scorn of locals, who use it as an excuse to find loopholes in the decency and honesty of a man whose former life was not one of the cloth.
Micheal Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran) is a wealthy man. He is concerned only for commodities and possessions, and mocking towards Father James. His wife and kids have left him. His condescending vindication of Father James vocation contradicts his own role in modern Ireland’s financial woes. We are given the idea that he is a financier or usurer of some sort. He urinates on a painting whilst drunk in front of the priest, only to later to weep and seek absolution from him. He is the closest of the secondary characters to have any nuance of humility in him.
Dr. Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen) is the ‘atheist doctor’. In a climate where there is much angst towards the Catholic Church for abuses under its name, it is here where we’d expect moral justification to arise most vehemently. Instead what we see is a sociopathic, sleazy, passive-aggressive, amoral creature who treats his cadavers as one might treat a scrapheap.
A sociopathic young killer Freddie Joyce (played by Gleeson’s son Domnhall) tries to convince Father Lavelle in quite shallow terms that he is remorseful for his murder of a young woman. This explicates a clear moral threshold in the virtues of the central character, ones which divert from official doctrines, and simply abide to a common gut feeling of ‘what’s right’, when ‘enough is enough’.
Inspector Stanton (Gary Lydon) offers Father James a gun. He is a homosexual, but his inclinations are restrained, leaving us to question whether his character may or not have been a subject of abuse as a youngster. On the other hand, Leo, a rent boy and drama queen to boot, has all the obvious signs of an abuse victim, yet appears so institutionalized in his very promiscuity, that he seems not to care.
To paraphrase a recent observation, Father James ‘carries the weight of the world’. His institution, as a result of its wrongdoings, has had its name dragged through the dirt, yet the society he tries to work for the greater good of, spits in the face of his sense of virtue. The film also offers a strong insight into his own sense of purpose, and does not shy to examine his own sense of contradiction and character flaws. This is especially significant in regards to where he places his sense of empathy, on both personal terms, and in the greater scheme of things.
The use of religion is relevant, as this conduit of ridicule was once something that many of the characters would have prostrated to without question. Here were the very people who made them powerful in the first place, now considering themselves utterly blameless. The state of a society can be judged by the people in it, and ‘Calvary’ makes a good, blackly comedic observation of that. From the scheming of ‘gombeen men’ who wish to make quick gains at the expense of communities, there is the degenerative malevolence of the small-town culchies, who attempt to belittle and smear the virtues of lone wolves. It shows a greater picture of a society in decline and denial, as opposed to a widely accepted ‘post-Catholic’ narrative of evil being spawned from one source, and nowhere more than that.
My only critique of ‘Calvary’ lies with the cinematography, which exposes us to the beautiful yet foreboding and windswept landscapes of County Sligo. It never goes far enough to cultivate any greater atmosphere from this, and gives all of its power to the scripting and dialogue, which are the most pertinent strengths of the film. In what is a very bleak piece, with little optimism to offer, and purposefully so, it would have been interesting to imagine bleak, brooding, slow shots in the style of a Béla Tarr film, though this would perhaps detract from the greater focal points.
In order to get a better context of the qualities of this film, it should be made clear that along with its ‘realist’ angle, the writing and scripting is heavily tinged with bitter, dark humour that goes beyond the threshold of ‘laugh out loud’ and becomes inseparable from the dark, cynical subject matter that is dealt with. Many of those critical of ‘Calvary’ suggest that the secondary characters in the narrative are highly generalized and are a ‘straw man’ portrait’ of modern day Irish mentalities. They fail to consider the ‘black comedy’ angle that is in part satirizing, and also genuinely reflecting the crooked spinelessness that is a visible trend in Ireland.
Originally Posted on Excuse the Blood