Partway through John Michael McDonagh’s film Calvary, Father James (Brendan Gleeson), a county priest in a small town in Ireland, encounters a young girl on the road. The girl is alone and lost, and Father James starts talking to her in the tone of a kind, grandfatherly man. Suddenly, a car drives up. The girl’s father angrily shouts at her to get in and yells accusingly at Father James. As the man drives away, the camera focuses back onto Father James’ face, and the look he gives is one of both pain yet understanding—sad as the suspicion and hatred may make him, he understands where it comes from, and how people view the church.
The specter of pedophilia in the church runs through the heart of the film. This is clear from the opening scene, in which Father James receives an unseen confessor who tells him about his childhood sexual abuse at the hands of an older priest. Father James apologizes to the man but the man is not satisfied; he tells Father James, a “good priest,” that he will kill him the following Sunday as a statement about the church’s abuses.
It’s quite a hook to start with and one that McDonagh’s script wisely lets slip into the background. What could have been a distracting narrative contrivance instead becomes a sort of sword of Damocles, giving the film a real sense of significance. This is just as well because the urgency of James’ predicament contrasts nicely with the film’s languorous, unhurried pace. As we watch Father James go about his daily duties—confession, meetings with his parishioners, last rites at the hospital—his mundane, unremarkable life gains a quiet grandeur.
On a strictly visual level, Calvary is at times a breathtaking film. McDonagh and cinematographer Larry Smith juxtapose many of the conversations Father James has with his parishioners against the serenely pastoral Irish coast. Equally noteworthy is his use of color. Father James, perpetually clad in his black cassock, stands out from his more colorful surroundings. The only time we really see him in harmony with his environment is when he prays in his Spartan room against a white wall adorned with a black crucifix.
This is fitting as Father James is a deliberately old fashioned and out-of-place character. His persona as a kindly country priest clashes with the atheism and immorality of the modern world, and many of his parishioners seem to go to mass more out of convention than deeply held beliefs. Indeed, one openly mocks him on a house call and another openly commits adultery in front of him, safe in her knowledge that she will be absolved for it on Sunday. Although the film clearly intends to portray Father James as a modern Christ dying for the sins of his church, at times he seems more Job than Jesus.
Calvary is by no means a perfect film. Some of its tonal shifts are jarring and seem out of place. Some of its subplots feel inessential, and several characters are distracting or seem more like clever ideas than flesh-and-blood people. The at-times grandiose score, which swells in certain emotional moments, seems to go against the quiet slow pace of the film. And when the dreaded moment of reckoning finally arrives, the film overreaches for an epic moment that doesn’t feel wholly earned.
Yet these problems, distracting as they may be, feel like minor quibbles when viewed against all that the film does right. In the moments when Father James talks to his more real-to-life parishioners, or reconnects with his adult daughter (born before he entered the priesthood) against the beauty of the Irish coast, the film achieves the greatness to which it aspires. Brendan Gleeson gives a magnificent performance, one that draws power from the simplest glance.
Gleeson’s previous collaborations with McDonagh and his brother Martin cast him as irascible lowlifes—a hitman in 2008’s In Bruges, a loose-moraled policeman in 2011’s The Guard—yet here, as the patient, preternaturally good Father James, he gives a revelatory performance, elevating what is at times an exercise in empty profundity into something sublime.
Ultimately, I can’t say that Calvary will stick with me as a great film, or even a particularly memorable one. Just a few days after I watched it, I struggled to remember key details about it. But for what it is—a low-key examination of faith in the 21st Century, sumptuously filmed against the beautiful Irish coast—Calvary is a modest success, with much to recommend about it.
A beautifully shot character study with weighty theological concerns