The wonderful thing about Calvary is that it’s so Irish. There’s the sea-smashing County Sligo scenery, the lovely bard-like language, the goddess-wailing music, and the dark humor roiling under its sadness. But it’s not a comedy. Don’t let those ads saying “wickedly funny” fool you. The movie is a tragedy with humor — kind of like life. And, like life, it may be way-too-human for some audiences. I loved it. My companion did not.
Calvary is a rare depiction of the core of the Irish soul, the thing that both defines Ireland as a country and destroys it — the Catholic Church. Like a spreading bloodstain, the backdrop of the picture is the recent discovery of the widespread pedophilia in Ireland, for decades committed and covered up by priests. Such horrendous evil, writer/director John Michael McDonagh (The Guard) points out in a nearly flawless script, taints all priests, no matter how innocent they are.
The harsh reality in Ireland today is that it’s hard to both read the newspaper and keep the faith. Though village priest Father James Lavelle (the bearish Brendan Gleeson) believes deeply in God and the Church’s teachings, he knows he’s a minority. “What is faith,” he says, “but the fear of death for most people?” Sure, he drinks too much and lets his dog sleep on the bed, but Father Lavelle is a good man — you’d want him in the foxhole with you.
In the confessional, one of Fr. Lavelle’s parishioners reveals he was abused for many years by a priest, who is now dead. To wreak revenge on the Church, the man says, next Sunday on the beach he will murder Fr. Lavelle. Killing an innocent man for the sins of others is certainly not a new theme. The name of this movie, after all, is Calvary.
Not unlike High Noon, the days of the week tick by. As Fr. Lavelle sets out on a futile search to identify the man who threatened him, his faith in God is sorely tested. Should he accept his fate, like the Celtic heroes whose ancestral blood courses through his veins? Or be a normal man and try to escape? The police chief gives Fr. Lavelle a loaded revolver and doesn’t ask why he knows how to use it.
Fr. Lavelle tries to maintain normalcy, which, for him, means tending to the needs of his flock — a flock, we see, who returns his care with ridicule and hostility. A battered woman flaunts her bruises. Who gave them to her — her husband (Chris O’Dowd), the affable butcher? Or her lover (Isaak De Bankolé), the car mechanic from the Ivory Coast? What pent-up rage motivates the Buddhist bartender, who is losing his business to the banks? Or the drunken venture capitalist who lives in an empty mansion? In one horrifying scene, Fr. Lavelle visits a mass murderer in prison (played by Gleeson’s son, Domhnall Gleeson), and he leaves with the bitter realization that some people will never feel contrition.
Oddly, for this celibate man, women seem to be the ones who bolster his faith. Fr. Lavelle didn’t become a priest until after his wife died. His grown daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) accuses him of being a father to everyone but her, a remark so crushing he can find no response. Later, unbidden, seeing what a good man her father really is, she forgives him.
The other woman is a stranger, Teresa, the widow of a French tourist who’s been killed in an auto accident on the coast’s twisting road. She rejects Fr. Lavelle’s counsel on the “randomness of death.” She insists that she will remember her husband for his “life well-lived,” giving the priest the courage he needs to face his future.
Finally, Sunday arrives and Fr. Lavelle walks on the beach. Blocked by the haze, a figure in the distance comes toward him. Will Fr. Lavelle’s God save him? Will our desire for good prove stronger than evil? Most importantly, when will forgiveness appear?