Friday, August 1, 2014

Movie Review: Calvary

Not for the faint-of-heart. But simply astounding. 
A real masterpiece that provides food for thought for everyone from Catholics to atheists.

"No point in killing a bad priest. I'm going to kill you because you're innocent."
Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is hearing confessions when the parishioner on the other side of the screen tells him about five years of childhood abuse at the hands of a bad priest. The man plans to exact revenge by murdering Father James, who is given a week to wind up his affairs. It is a small community and the priest recognizes his parishioner's voice, although that identity is not revealed to the audience. Father James takes no immediate action but spends the week tending to his small flock. They are an erring lot who are flawed, wounded, and deeply critical of Father James, who they verbally flay for the suffering, real and imagined, that they have experienced at the hands of the Catholic Church.

Father James' life is further complicated by his tenuous relationship with his daughter, Fiona. (Father James entered the priesthood after his wife died.) We also see him contrasted with his bishop and a fellow priest, both of whom are not bad men but who are not fully engaged in their vocations. This leaves the audience in the position of trying to suss out the mystery while observing a truly good priest struggle to live his vocation under seemingly impossible circumstances.

Writer and director John Michael McDonagh has given us a layered and nuanced film made for anyone who has ever struggled with faith, forgiveness, betrayal, and revenge. Above all, he looks at the cost to good priests who must struggle with the human fallout and suffering caused by bad ones. Brendan Gleeson, heading up an excellent cast, portrays the good priest with subtlety and depth which allow you to see into his soul as the week progresses.

Some reviews have criticized the villagers as quirky, broad caricatures. I felt that was intentional and that it would be a mistake to think they are intended as realistic personalities. The sharply drawn characters give Calvary the feeling of a morality play where each is a personification of a different sin or modern struggle with religion. Yet McDonagh doesn't allow it to rest there. In each case we are given glimpses, however brief, below the brittle facades to the human beings beneath. The director does not intend to allow us the detachment which has led to the problems his film highlights.

The most fully realized characters and relationship are Father James and Fiona who translate the struggles to live an authentic faith into real human terms for us. The insistence on the value of each person when combined with Father James' absolute integrity are the messages at the core of this movie.

You may see this billed as a dark comedy. I think that is inaccurate. It is a drama, straight up. Yes, there are some lighter moments but that is because life itself has some lighter moments even in the midst of trouble and darkness. It is no comedy.

Fundamentalists of both sorts, from atheist to Catholic, will either celebrate or mourn this movie as an attack on the Catholic Church. That approach is far too simple. Those who know real truth is never that easy will appreciate the way McDonagh shows both sides without setting up straw men to knock down.

The movie never felt like an attack on the Church to me. Instead of looking at the "evil clergy" McDonagh took the novel and welcome approach of presenting a good priest who doesn't defend horrific actions of bad men but also never denies his own vocation in the very Church to which they all belong. In fact, the inclusion of an angry Buddhist highlights the point that the problem of authentic faith is not constrained to any one religion but is a matter of each person's cooperation with God and others in their community.

If Calvary makes you uncomfortable, it is meant to do so. That's what the truth does. In this magnificent film we are shown Truth shimmering beneath the surface of a week in the life of this good priest. And given grace for viewers to take back into the world with them.

Rated R for sexual references, language, brief strong violence and some drug use.

I had the opportunity to interview the director/writer John Michael McDonagh. That interview appears here.

Here is a featurette about Calvary which shows some insights into Father James's character from Brendan Gleeson and others. It doesn't really spoil anything that I can tell and I liked it much better than the trailer I saw.


  1. At least the movie presumes that there ARE good, faithful, hard-working, attentive, serving priests--that not every priest is a bad person! Interesting review. Thank you.

    1. Yes, the director said he felt there would be enough movies about bad priests. That's why he was interested in looking at what happened to the good men left to clean up the mess. A refreshing point of view. :-)

  2. "Not for the faint-of-heart. But simply astounding. A real masterpiece..."

    This makes me all kinds of happy.

    "I had the opportunity to interview the director/writer John Michael McDonagh. That interview will appear soon."

    This makes me all kinds of impatient.


    1. I have to transcribe it or it'd already be posted. :-)

      I didn't know an interview could really just be a super-fun conversation. I guess it helps if we are all really into the same movie!

  3. What? No zombie apoodleclips or computerized attack hamsters? An intelligent movie? Didn't know they still existed. Thank you.

    1. Or that I'd go see one without zombies, right? It must be the Apocalypse! :-D