An unforgettable trip to Calvary – via Sligo

“Calvary” is a darkly brilliant film that tackles emotional, cultural, and religious, and regional issues on a cinematic canvas both broad and insular. That may read oxymoronic, but writer-director John Michael McDonagh and a splendid cast pull off exactly that. Among that cast, as Sligo priest “Father James,” Brendan Gleeson delivers one of the finest performances of his stellar career. So, too, do Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Dylan Moran, Aidan Gillen, and the rest of the troupe.

The wild, rugged beauty of Ireland’s West Coast loom large as the film’s backdrop, McDonagh’s deft use of place serving every bit as vividly as in his memorable film debut, “The Guard” (2011), which also starred Gleeson in a knockout performance. “Calvary,” named for the hill on which Christ was crucified, weaves the story of Father James, a good priest and good man who has grappled with his own demons. In the dark of the confessional, one of his parishioners, a man sexually abused by a priest and anonymous to the viewer, informs Father James that the victim will enact his revenge upon the church by crucifying Father James on a local strand in one week’s time.

Father James tends to his parishioners with his customary dedication as the “day of Calvary” draws ever nearer. McDonagh’s biting, incisive dialogue, deft pacing, and magnificent cinematography dare the audience to avert their eyes or cover their ears – but the viewer can’t. Bursts of gallows humor and the inexorable flow of the story will not allow watchers to turn away. McDonagh’s storytelling skills keep one guessing who the revenge-minded parishioner is, giving the film a genuine sense of mystery and even crime noir. Is the damaged, twisted killer-to-be the raucous butcher (Chris O’Dowd), who appears to be always one step from explosive behavior; the haughty, tightly wrapped “local squire” (Dylan Moran) appears a likely candidate at times; so, too, does the utterly screwed-up local doctor (Aiden Gillen), who fills his nose with cocaine in the bathroom of the local pub and carps about his life. Then again, as Father James visits parishioners in whitewashed cottages perched along the wild Sligo landscape, the viewer wonders if one of several other embittered, seething souls might be the one readying Father James’s cross.

I will not even hint at the film’s climax. All I’ll say is that “Calvary” is a film that one should run, not walk, to see. On every level, it succeeds splendidly and unforgettably. While the Academy will certainly not listen to me, if I had a vote, I’d nominate Gleeson for his tour-de-force as Father James as he confronts his own Calvary with courage, dignity, and a humanity and understanding that is mesmerizing and haunting. One can only hope that McDonagh and Gleeson continue to collaborate on future films.

After a private screening of “Calvary,” John Michael McDonagh and Brendan Gleeson sat down to discuss the film with the BIR:
Q. In playing the role of Father James, did you feel any weight of not veering into stereotypes with some of the memorable portrayals of priests on screen?
A. I tried to keep the connection to the character more personal. Some of the past portrayals of priests are dated, so I didn’t give those much reflection. What I tried to do was delve into my own connection to the Church and priests from my childhood. Back then, everything was taught in such terms of black and white. Of course, things are rarely so black and white, as we learn through life. Father James has battled addiction and his own faith, but as John’s [McDonagh’s] script captures, Father James is a good man and priest despite his doubts and flaws. He is a flesh and blood human being who genuinely strives to serve his parishioners as best he can. That and the core faith that allows him to cope with the fact that a man wants to crucify him for the sins of the church at large are what I worked to portray.

Of course, one has to give a nod to some of the timeless performances of Montgomery Clift in “I Confess” and certainly Trevor Howard in “Ryan’s Daughter” – he was simply brilliant.

Q. The landscape of the film is so resonant, and its inhabitants are hardly the stuff of the friendly, smiling hagiography many Americans have of Ireland’s West.
A. The landscape is so important, I believe, to any film that strives to be memorable. Sligo is beautiful, but there can be a harsh beauty that fills not only the land, sky, and sea, but a harshness that fills many of the people who live there. The landscape is the frame for all that the characters do and experience. The past and present are all so muddled. Still, even the smallest sky on film can be universal.

Q. You have blended a number of genres into “Calvary,” but at its core, the film focuses upon a remote corner that has been as harmed by the huge issue of clerical abuse as any large urban parish.
A. The fact that abuse is the centerpiece of all that happens in the story does invariably make the film something of a horror film. Still, I didn’t want to be heavy-handed. I worked to process clerical abuse obliquely – I want the audience to be looking at the impact of abuse, rather than what has literally happened. It [the film] is invariably a mystery to all but Father James. The villain is also a victim. In a very real sense, the movie is a victim-impact statement, but done in a way that does not stumble into cinematic porn in terms of violence. I tried to make the villain sympathetic – to show how he ever got to a point of planning to crucify a priest. What makes Father James so remarkable is his innate understanding that he must absorb it...

Q. This question is for both of you. What would you most like movie goers to take away from “Calvary” at film’s end and upon later reflection?
A. Gleeson: That there is still a good to be had with the Church. I’m looking at my parents, and how a Christian Brother in particular had a huge positive influence in my own life. About Father James, I want people to understand he’s not a pussy – he strives for goodness, even though he pays for it. McDonagh: I want people to think about basic questions of humanity. I believe there is an existential spiritual point the film makes: Forgiveness is highly underrated.