Everything is a portrait in Calvary. Each shot feels designed to stand on its own. Cinematographer Larry Smith often fills his frames with the thoughtful faces of characters staring at something just out of view. At first glance, their countenances seem mysteriously unadulterated.
But these shots take on new meaning in context. As we learn about their individual backstories, these characters reveal their inner consternation. Where once were pure expressions of introspection, now there are tortured men and women drowning in evil thoughts.
This visual motif is a microcosm of Calvary. Writer/director John Michael McDonagh (The Guard) turns his dark gaze to the story of Jesus. He takes a tragic narrative of innocence and divinity and colors it with his trademark brand of humor and cynical reproach.
The burden of this story falls on this inimitable shoulders of Father James (Brendan Gleeson), a priest who serves a small Irish township. The film opens in a confessional as the priest is informed that someone will kill him in one week’s time. James is torn between self-preservation and his responsibility to his flock. As he comes to realize he lives amidst people who have lost all sense of faith and decency, his decision gets more complicated. Why should he stay? Who is he there for?
Gleeson is a powerful actor. His low, rolling voice gives deep gravity to his words. His face construes every nuance of thought while his eyes belie a kind and gentle soul. He is well-suited to play a good man in a bad way, left fighting a rising tide of evil that erodes his faith out from under him.
A colorful cast surrounds Gleeson. Notably, Kelly Reilly gives an affecting but softspoken performance as Father James‘ troubled daughter Fiona. Dylan Moran also impresses as he slips easily in to the role of profound bastard Michael Fitzgerald, a white collar dilettante whose obsession for wealth masks an inner sociopathic emptiness.
Aiden Gillen glides from his famous turn as Littlefinger on Game of Thrones into the scrubs of Dr. Frank Harte and brings his menacing facial hair with him. His heavy delivery and sly demeanor seem at odds with his diminutive part, but never to the point of distraction. Chris O’Dowd is perfunctory as Jack Brennan, a local butcher whose past is intrinsically tied to Father James. His success as a character is due more to his baby face than the unenthused laziness of his performance, but it works well enough.
Calvary interrogates tenets of forgiveness and integrity. Each of James’ congregants request guidance from him. They ask him what Jesus would do. They look everywhere but inward for answers to their problems, seeking absolution and divine intervention instead of true forgiveness and reconciliation. They want the easy way out.
There is a recurring theme of communication in Calvary. One woman refuses to ask for help as she suffers in a physically abusive relationship. A young man sees no option other than suicide because women won’t talk to him. A husband allows his wife to cheat so that she will leave him alone at the end of the day. In each case, the inhabitants of the town seem to talk past one another.
Only James and Fiona, in a moment of real connection, manage to settle their differences in one brief phone call. Through this, James comes to realize that talk is cheap. Real integrity is shown through action, and real forgiveness is earned from the offended person.
Yet, even a priest has his breaking point. Calvary does not shy away from the one of the most important elements of its source material. Despite his noble bearings, Father James suffers from mortal vices. His tolerance for mockery and disrespect eventually comes to a head. Like Jesus, his human propensity for anger does eventually win out. And, as with Jesus, this allows Father James to become a flawed icon with whom we can intimately empathize.
Not everything works in Calvary. John Michael McDonagh veers into the pitfalls of his brother’s Seven Psychopaths as characters comment on their own dialogue and roles in the film. These moments aren’t prevalent, but they do detract from immersion in a way that doesn’t suit the narrative. It’s a brand of meta-humor that feels incongruous in a Passion Play.
Calvary is the name of the biblical location where Jesus was crucified. The film takes its name as it poses a new question about the Jesus story. What use is faith in a world overrun by evil? McDonagh wonders aloud what anyone of conviction would do in Father James’ situation. By the film’s end, we know the priest’s decision. But in these final moments, the film again puts the onus on us.
What use is faith? Emerging from McDonagh’s bleak world, I confess I still don’t have an answer.
Movie Verdict: Win