The Catholic Church has taken quite the beating in the courtrooms and court of public opinion over the last twenty years or more. And rightfully so. They harbored dozens – if not, hundreds – of pedophiles and did precious little to stop the actions of those horrible priests, and even less to make it up to the abused.
For all the good that Pope Francis is doing to bring the Church into the 21st century, the scars and stains of the past remain. Those are the clouds that hover over the characters in John McDonagh’s second feature film CALVARY, particularly Father James, a brash but dedicated priest working in a small Irish community, and a nameless man who confesses to being abused by a priest for years. And because he can’t punish the abuser (he died before he could be brought to justice), this gent decides that he’s going to make a much more indelible mark on the Church by killing Father James.
it’s a crackerjack of an opening gambit by McDonagh, but one that he mostly abandons for the better part of the film. James (played brilliantly by the always reliable Brendan Gleeson) almost seems resigned to his fate and instead goes about his priestly business. But what he is faced with is a modern world that, although they show up for mass every week, has little time for organized religion. They’re crass and often boorish, flaunting their sins in front of his face with brio: a married woman (Orla O’Rourke) brazenly carries out an affair with the local mechanic (Isaach de Bankole); a gay gigolo tosses out crass remarks to rattle the priest; a filthy rich former banker (Dylan Moran) flaunts his wealth, pissing on a famous painting for effect. Incredibly, James maintains his calm and absorbs these blows one after the other. He maintains his even keel even in the face of caring for his daughter (born before he entered the priesthood) who visits for a few days nursing a broken heart and the wounds from a suicide attempt.
As the date of his possible death draws nearer, though, James’ resolve is slowly chipped away by these outside forces. And it is in those scenes when Gleeson’s acting really comes alive. The 59-year-old has already cemented his reputation as a great supporting actor, using his soft features and thick brogue to shine out amid the clamor of costume dramas (BRAVEHEART, THE RAVEN), sci-fi epics (AI: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, EDGE OF TOMORROW), and other grandiose fare. But in more understated affairs, where he can take the lead and carry the dramatic (or sometimes comedic) weight of the film, Gleeson finds a deep humanity in even the most flawed of figures. And James is, above all else, human, still haunted by the death of his wife and the initially fractured relationship with his daughter. Gleeson reflects all of this with subtle vocal inflections, as well as hardening or softening his gaze on whoever is in front of him. As such, the effect can be warming or devastating.
McDonagh seems to both admire and pity James. He loves the strength of a priest willing to suffer getting lit cigarettes flicked in his direction and snotty atheists taunting him, and he gives his character moments throughout where he’s seen to be leaving a positive effect on the people he touches. But he also seems to admit that there’s no hope for his kind in these modern times. They are going to be facing the slings and arrows of those who want to use people like James as a stand in for the Church as a whole, and want retribution in some small or large way. McDonagh refuses such symbolism, however. For him, James is just a poor pawn being batted around by the people he answers to – both his parishioners and the folks higher up on the chain of command. In that sense, James instead represents all of us poor humans trying to stay aloft when either God or society is hellbent on knocking us down.