In a giant version of Webster’s dictionary, Calvary is first defined as “the place where Jesus was crucified” but further on an alternative definition (for calvaries) is “a representation of the crucifixion of Jesus”.
The second could be the title’s meaning in writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary (2013).
McDonagh, who created the beloved The Guard (2011), moves into Catholic territory in Calvary with Brendan Gleeson playing Father James, a priest who found his vocation late in life, the central figure in a parish dominated by troubled people leading troubled lives in and about Sligo, a rugged coastal part of Ireland.
When a confession seeker tells Fr James that he is going to kill him in a week’s time, we watch the priest thrust into the ‘Jesus’ character as a good man doing good work about to be killed for the sins of others.
As the week unfolds, Fr James’ pastoral life is shown in some detail as he attempts to do his rounds among the flock and make peace with his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), the product of a marriage that ended in his wife’s death. By choosing the church, Fr James has become estranged from Fiona, who tells him she lost both parents but only one died.
While carrying the secret of the death threat – shared only with his bishop – the priest’s demons are brought to the surface and his usually sardonic style of dealing with the town folk and fellow priest, Fr Leary (David Wilmot), eventually bubbles into open contempt and anger. This is heightened when he returns to his hard drinking past after what is apparently a long, enforced absence.
Calvary introduces several possible suspects (as we hear his voice in the confessional, women can be excepted as can the thick-accented Simon (Isaach De Bankole). Each parishioner has significant problems, played out in an Ireland of financial devastation which is beginning to impact the victims.
Jack (Chris O’Dowd) is married to sluttish Veronica (Orla O’Rourke), who is sleeping with Simon; Dr Frank (Aidan Gillen) gives cynicism a bad name; wealthy and hinted-at crooked financier Michael (Dylan Moran) has piles of money but hates life; publican Brendan (Pat Shortt) has the bank about to foreclose; Milo (Killian Scott) wants to join the army so he can kill with impunity; and police inspector Stanton (Gary Lydon) uses the services of male prostitute Leo (Owen Sharpe), who is as mad as a cut snake (before St Patrick allegedly drove them out). M.Emmet Walsh is a published writer living in seclusion and he wants Fr James to get him a firearm so he can end his own life.
What we are shown is how a once-venerated church has become a symbol of avarice and scorn. Fr James is often challenged about the existence of God; why the deity performs the acts that He does; and the evolving evidence of paedophilia within the church. The criticisms come from members of his own Sunday mass.
Like the saviour, Fr James imparts his caring and his wisdom to the wretched as he stares towards a possible death at the hands of an unjust executioner.
Only a European woman, Teresa (Marie Josee Crose), offers him some hope that his ministering is not totally wasted. With her husband killed in a car crash, which she survives unscathed, Teresa still maintains her belief.
The audience feels for Gleeson’s portrayal. He appears in nearly every scene yet we cannot grow tired of his compassion and his energy. He wears the old-fashioned priest’s garb which does a good job of concealing his considerable paunch and shaving is something he seems to do only at Lent.
It is a tour-de-force and arguably even better than his performance in The Guard.
McDonagh has made only two films and certainly has a creative mind, a perceptive eye as to society’s problems and no lack of dialogue from his characters with which to expose it.
FOOTNOTE: Gleeson’s son Domhnall played Freddie, the serial killer Fr James visits in prison.