The former Archbishop of New York, Fulton J. Sheen once wrote “Without God people only succeed in bringing out the worst in one another.” In John Michael McDonagh’s second film, Calvary, the characters of a small town in County Sligo, Ireland are in various states of a religious malaise. Only the priest played by returning McDonagh collaborator, Brendan Gleeson, appears to be upholding religious custom in a community which has no desire for God’s mercy.
Dubbed as a black comedy drama, partly due to the well-received past work of the McDonagh brothers and the unavoidable droll tone that arises in most rhetoric of Irish rural life, Calvary conceals a cruel underbelly with a festering wound that threatens to destabilise a community struggling to come to terms with its religious and moral responsibilities.
The film begins with Father James (Brendan Gleeson) overseeing his weekly confessions. However, through the darkness of the booth, Father James hears that in seven days time he will be killed. Any viewer intrigue is off-set by the chilling opening lines of dialogue which renders the priest nearly speechless. We hear of how this concealed would-be-killer has suffered the most horrific abuse at the hands of a priest many years before who has since died. In order to obtain revenge, the confessor has chosen to eliminate an innocent clergyman in his abuser’s place. Father James has one week to get his “house in order”, and so unfolds what could be the last seven days of a man’s life.
The film is exceedingly dark, transforming beautiful Irish landscapes into a nightmarish setting of deception and greed. The town-folk are a sceptical bunch, no longer at ease with the tradition of the church being at the centre of their lives. If we are to view this town as a microcosm of Ireland as a whole, its inhabitants are weary, mistrusting of a system which for so long has utilised and often times, abused the god-fearing doctrine which has pervaded. Father James is a shepherd increasingly without a flock, finding his guidance and support unheeded despite his holy vow to serve. He is a good man, wearing a uniform which has been sullied by others in his position, and struggles to understand his place in a town where his vocation is no longer respected. Despite this, Father James remains an honourable man in the face of debauchery and his own demons.
The town contains colourful, if not entirely likeable characters, and the film succeeds in making every passing conversation seem like a discussion of life and death, articulately or inarticulately offering another clue to a whodunnit where the crime has yet to be committed. Dylan Moran is the grotesque squire who openly tries to flout the “camel through the eye of a needle” parable by allaying his sins with his wealth, Aidan Gillen as the atheist local doctor (with a bizarre Irish accent from erm, an Irish actor) and Chris O’Dowd as the local butcher in a loveless marriage, playing a role he seems unlikely to be offered during his new-found fame in Hollywood.
The most heart-rending narrative however, is the relationship between Father James and his grown-up daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly). The film softens in the scenes where the distant, but reverent father and daughter reunite and talk openly about their lives and what they mean to one another. It presents a unique perspective to the priesthood and makes Father James’ acknowledgement that he cannot run from his destiny, vocationally or personally, all the more moving.
Calvary is not a realistic film, but something can be said in that it deals with reality in such a way that you can’t help but feel that you have been rudely awoken to things many would rather pretend are not happening. Even as you leave the darkened cinema and are kindly reminded that it is a work of fiction, the revelations and cynicism of the film are unnerving and in this way, it is successful in its ambition to jerk you with the truth. By the end it isn’t really about the ‘who’s the killer trope’, but instead asks just how does everyday life continue when blind faith seems to have poisoned a small community? Sheen claims, without God, we are liable to turn on one another. But Calvary suggests, with or without God, we are unarmed against those who victimise and the blind eyes that watch.