A detailed account of pedophilic rape is heard in the confessional, with only Father James’ sweaty face visible; he is cringing and cowering in the claustrophobic space, unsure of how to even begin to reconcile the atrocity inflicted upon the confessor. Speechless, the innocent priest is given a warning: he’ll be killed at the beach surrounding his small Irish parish on Sunday week, not because he’s done something wrong, but because he hasn’t.
Calvary’s namesake is a site near Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified. The film details the seven days following the confession scene, each day forcing greater resilience from within Father James’ in his ongoing opposition against the sinful and the wicked. He goes about his work almost ordinarily, besides his knowledge that someone will attempt to kill him (he knows who, we don’t). His grown daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), born prior to his priesthood, provides the startling reminder that James is a father first and foremost to a child, rather than to an entire town.
Calvary, a quick-witted film composed of dialogue detached from any real agenda, is set in front of a bleak, grey and blue-toned Irish countryside. We’re left more room for interpretation of character motives than most movies; nothing is shoved down the throat – each role has its subtleties and enigmas, though they could easily not be there at all. While the town-folk provide most of the fuel for the story’s drama and comedy, Father James remains the focus. Brendan Gleeson perfectly portrays the binaries of his character – a constant interplay between his churchly duties and human instincts. The weakness found in his character, though very real, arises infrequently and in the most discrete mannerisms – Gleeson overplays nothing. As such, the audience can only speculate upon the priest’s struggles, and through speculation comes a greater understanding of the hardships James undergoes.
This is perhaps the most gripping feature of the film – all the characters are quite subtle in hiding their secrets and what lies underneath the web that Father James uncovers is what truly engages the audience. Moreover, it’s what is underneath James’ own strikingly sharp, strong figure that we wonder about. To everyone else, he simply preaches and disrupts their somewhat comfortable lifestyles, but one can recognise the humanism behind his advice. Until the final moments of the film, James puts the wellbeing of his community before himself. Once we understand this, the force of his reality – his troubles and conflicts – hits us. These are the guts of the film, and essential to its message.
While quite noble, James perhaps arouses too much sympathy in the audience to accurately bring up the ‘duality of man’ issue. In fact, writer and director John Michael McDonagh has stated that he wanted to make a film about a good priest among the many he foresees emerging about corrupt ones. As such, Calvary is almost a reactionary response against the current sentiment regarding the Catholic Church and its treatment of children. However, it provides no vindication for the church and its sometimes deceitful, greedy habits. Rather, it gives much needed insight into priesthood in a communal context – in the midst of the broken and damaged, found almost inevitably in any given population.
Visually, there isn’t anything extravagant to witness because there really isn’t any need. Most scenes involve two or three characters and there’s more to hear than to see. The minimalism in character dynamics and interaction results in minimalist shot composition – ordinary in most ways, hiding in the background of the dialogue. The landscape provides some fascinating wide-angles and unlike many films, isn’t overused and almost always incorporates characters into the shot itself, providing slightly more weight and cinematic purpose than would otherwise. The emptiness and recurring gloom parallel the characters’ solitude – all interrelated, though all dealt with in isolation by Father James. We see each separated and examined individually, and only through this understanding of individual characters are we given any hope of determining the identity of the confessor heard at the beginning of the film.
Calvary forces us to understand the people behind the principles of the Church and their impact on society as a whole, rather than as they are so often framed – greedy, dishonest and altogether untrustworthy. It also indicates that perhaps conversation revolving around good and evil must remain secular to be meaningful and accessible. Father James triumphs not as the ideal of priesthood, but as the personification of Christian values embedded in everyday culture; a position often strived for but rarely reached.