By Michael Parnell
Calvary begins in a confessional in Ireland. Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) listens to a man describe how he was raped as child by a priest. The man then tells Father James that he will kill him the next Sunday on the beach. The way the confessor figures, a good priest will die for a bad one.
What follows is the week that Father James spends doing what he always does: caring for the people of his parish. And this is a motley group.
There is Veronica (Oria O’Rouke) who is married to Jack (Chris O’Dowd), the local butcher. Veronica is having an affair with Simon (Issach De Bankolé), an African immigrant. Veronica flaunts her actions and her husband is aware of her bed hopping but seems to be fine with it.
Also part of the parish is the local pub owner who has nothing good to say. A very non-affable fellow is he. There is the doctor who tells a horrible story of why he is an atheist. The richest man in the county is one step away from the jailhouse, so he drinks to excess and wants to soothe his conscious by donating money to the church. The nicely dressed young man of the church is socially inept and wants to join the army. Father James tells him he thinks that joining the army in peace time is inherently psychopathic. In Father James’s view the only reason you join the army is to try and find out what it is like to kill someone.
Even Father James’s daughter is a mess of a person. Father James was once married, but his wife died. When his daughter (Kelly Reilly) enters the story she is coming off a failed attempt at suicide. At one point she goes enters the confessional to tell her father, “I belong to myself, and no one else.” Which brings this reply from her father:“True, false.”
The only people who seem remotely well-adjusted are an old writer (M. Emmett Walsh) and a French woman (Marie-Josée Croze) whose husband dies and for whom Father James performs last rites. The writer jokes about dying, while the wife speaks and models great faith.
As the movie moves along its path, the threat of Father James’s death lingers in the back of your mind. But that is not what we see in the character. What you are struck by is the goodness of this man of God. In the face of the burning of his church he remains committed. His only moments of wavering come later in the movie, when a horrible act is visited upon him, but he continues onward.
John Michael McDonagh, who writes and directs this film, makes it work a bit differently than most movies do. Almost all the scenes include only two characters, primarily Father James and another person. It is as though the entire movie is a confessional between the father and another character who reveals something and to whom Father James offers advice or absolution. This allows the characters to grow. Yet growth does not mean maturing. Most of the characters here do little of that. They only grow in depth.
I was arrested by how this movie works as a theological metaphor. What the confessor says is going to happen is that a good man will die for a bad man. That is a concept of atonement. The good man, Christ, dies for the bad people. McDonagh creates a character in Father James who is a good priest who cares deeply for his flock, in spite of their flaws and faults.
Brendan Gleeson is a revelation as Father James. He brings humanity to the role, showing a priest who walks with his people and loves them as they are. He is not daunted by the death threat. The actor shows us one who believes in God and is resigned to God’s will for his life. That is why he never reports the threat to the authorities.
Father James show real love for those he ministers to — not a saccharin kind of false love, but a compassion for the waywardness in the lives of the people he walks with in life.
As Father James is confronting a fellow priest, Father Leary (David Wilmot), he tells his fellow servant he needs to find another vocation. With genuine love Father James says Father Leary lacks integrity. He declares that lack of integrity is the worst thing he can say about someone.
Gleeson brings large amounts of integrity to this role. He is the reason to see this movie.
Rated R for sexual references, language, brief strong violence and some drug use
Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh
With: Brendan Gleeson (Father James Lavelle), Kelly Reilly (Fiona Lavelle), Chris O’Dowd (Jack Brennan),
M. Emmett Walsh (The Writer), Oria O’Rouke (Veronica), Marie-Josée Croze (Teresa), Issach De Bankolé (Simon)