THC missed Calvary during its theatrical release last year because like so many "small" films it was quickly in and out of the one local theater where it was shown. The reviews had been quite good and THC finally caught it on cable a couple of weeks ago. Despite the reviews, he was not prepared for the real subject of the film. THC could just say he found it moving, but the truth is he was crying during the final two scenes, something he never remembers doing before while watching a movie.
The setup for this Irish-made film is very simple, and occurs in the very first scene. A priest in rural County Sligo is taking confession when the penitent informs him that as a child he was molested multiple times by a priest who has since died. After further back and forth, the penitent announces that rather than take any of the alternatives suggested by the priest, it would be a more powerful statement for him to kill a good, innocent priest, rather than a bad priest, so he will murder the priest taking his confession in a week. While the priest has suspicions about who the penitent is, he does not know for sure.
So it's a whodunit, right? Well, that's what THC thought based on the reviews and the opening scene but it isn't, though it's a while before it becomes apparent that the filmmaker, John Michael McDonagh who wrote and directed, has something else on his mind. It's not about who is planning the murder or about any of the flawed and very human members of the Church that we are introduced to in the course of the film. Calvary is about what it means to be a good priest and the faith required to meet the demands of that role. Though that burden is one that can be heavy at any time, by situating it in the midst of the terrible abuse scandals within the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, the costs of bearing the weight of that burden become even more significant. Calvary is a whatwillhedo and whyhedoesit rather than a whodunit.
After watching the film, THC (a non-Catholic) went online to double check his reaction by looking at how Catholic publications reviewed the film, in light of its setting within the Church's sexual abuse scandal. With the exception of one lukewarm review, they varied from very positive to raves with one commenting that the movie showed "with extraordinary vividness, what authentic spiritual shepherding looks like and how it feels for a priest to have a shepherd’s heart", and Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles Chaput called it an "intimate, unblinking, unforgettable film".
Brendan Gleeson (Braveheart, In Bruges, Gangs of New York) plays Father James Lavelle, a man who came late to the priesthood, joining after his beloved wife died, and who has a troubled adult daughter. Gleeson, always good, is simply magnificent here, by turns funny, caring, caustic, baffled, questioning, loving and even, on one occasion, violent. The rest of the cast is excellent - for Game of Thrones fans, Aiden Gillen (Littlefinger) plays a cynical atheist doctor, and the great M Emmett Walsh (THC will always be haunted by his role as Loren Visser, the corrupt private detective in the Coen Brothers debut feature, Blood Simple) appears as an American writer living out his days in the village. A French-Canadian actress, Marie-Jose Cruze, appears briefly in two crucial scenes to deliver a message of grace and acceptance in the face of an unfathomably awful random event.
(Gillen in Game of Thrones, Walsh in Blood Simple)
The cinematography makes the Irish countryside look beautiful (perhaps not a hard job) and the screenplay contains a great deal of wit, with lines that would never be allowed to appear in a Hollywood movie today. The only weakness is a byproduct of the movie's structure. Many of the characters were more like caricatures and some of the dialogue too cleverly written. It was only as the story developed that THC realized most of the roles were written deliberately as archetypes and that the priest is the only fully realized character and, in the end, that is all that matters in this thoughtful and moving film that will stay with you.