Today is the final day of The Begorrathon. It’s been a fantastic month – a roundup of this week’s highlights will appear later today.
There were several Irish films I wanted to review but I didn’t have time, and coincidentally, they are all by one of the country’s new leading lights, Lenny Abrahamson. Reviews of Frank, Garage, and What Richard Did will appear on the blog eventually, but I’ll take a moment now to urge you to watch What Richard Did: in its own way it tells you more the state and psychosis of modern Ireland than a hundred episodes of The Late Late Show.
But we end the Begorrathon with a film just as insightful, and a definite highlight that should be one everyone’s viewing list: Calvary
Although John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard has a bleak, dark humour running through it, his follow-up Calvary has a startling opening line which should right away tell you this is a film of a different order.
“I first tasted semen when I was seven years old,” a man’s voice off-screen tells Father James (Brendan Gleeson). “Certainly a startling opening line” is the priest’s response. The man then tells the priest that he intends to kill him – not because he’s a bad priest, but precisely because he’s a good one. “Killing a priest on a Sunday. That’ll be a good one.”
As the title suggests, Calvary has parallels with the death of Christ: a man must die for the sins of others. In this case, he must die to atone for the sins of the Catholic Church, which is openly ridiculed by practically everybody else in film, even though they all attend Mass.
This is a film about the consequences of the Irish Catholic Church’s shameful history of abuse, scandals and cover-ups – that it’s also something of a comedy and something of a redemptive moral drama makes it an outstanding achievement, one of the best Irish films ever made, and by far one of the best films of 2014.
This is by no means a religious film, but it is a moral one. In some ways it resembles a Medieval morality play, as the central figure is surrounded by others who represent different types of immorality – murder, adultery, lust, greed, and so on. It’s not just that the priest is a good man; he seems to be the only good person in a shabby small town filled with badness, or at the very least, indifference.
The priest is given a week to put his affairs in order before he is to meet his killer. He continues his parochial duties, visiting parishioners, offering counsel, giving last rites to an accident victim. One of these parishioners, of course, is the would-be killer. The idea of a protagonist going around a small town before facing what might be his final hour might ever so slightly remind you of High Noon, but the ticking clock structure is not used here to add tension. Calvary isn’t a thriller or a mystery: the priest knows who the man in the confessional is (we can easily guess it too).
A more accurate comparison might be to Tennessee Williams’ Night of the Iguana, with its depiction of a ruined and degraded small town populated with damaged souls.
Father James is an unconventional priest in many ways. Widowed and the father of a grown daughter, he joined the priesthood late (he is also a reformed drunk). He is not a cynic, though: his vocation is strong, although as he says, there is far too much emphasis placed on sin and not enough on virtue.
Gleeson is always reliable, but here he gives what might just be the performance of his career in a portrayal of a man in anguish, burdened with the sins of others, yet still hopeful. It is a remarkable performance. With unkempt hair and a shaggy beard, Gleeson uses his large frame to great effect. He is a solid, somber presence in a town filled with cynical smart-arses.
Rural Ireland suffered the most when Ireland’s economy collapsed, and Calvary‘s sliest achievement is its acknowledgement of that. The Sligo scenery is picture-postcard beautiful; the place should be overrun with tourists and thriving businesses, but the town is desolate and used-looking. Even the library is closed because of cutbacks. Although there is one scene when the pub is full and lively with music and dance, for most of the film the bar is near-empty and deathly quiet.
Not that the film isn’t without humour. Much of it is very funny, but it’s a gallows humour. The town’s characters include a depressed man who cannot talk to women, and who thinks his murderous thoughts will help him if he joins the Army (“I assume that wanting to murder someone would be like having a degree in Engineering; it would outweigh my lack of qualifications”); a young priest in continual shock at what he hears during confession (“Do you know what felching is? … I had to look it up”); a cynical doctor who complains that being such is an awful cliche (“there aren’t that many good lines”); a wisecracking rent boy with an affected Yank accent and a string of 1940s-era patter (“Hello, Fadda. Waddaya hear? Waddaya say?”); an obnoxious wealthy country squire who pisses on his valuable art because he can; and an old writer who thinks his new novel is “better than Cecilia Ahern, but not as good as Banville.”
There are many wonderful moments in a film that is just over an hour and a half, including a brilliant scene where we get to see Gleeson acting with his son, Domhnall, playing an unrepentant serial killer who the priest visits in prison.
The cast – many of which appeared in The Guard – is mostly rather good. Dylan Moran’s particular speech pattern and delivery of lines makes him sound permanently sloshed, but he’s quite good as the arrogant millionaire. Chris O’Dowd is the town butcher, a cajoling, crude boyo. Pat Shortt is a cynical barman. Killian Scott is the gormless young man. Owen Sharpe is the rent boy. Orla O’Rourke has a slinky, arch sexuality as the butcher’s unfaithful wife. Isaach de Bankolé is her lover. Gary Lydon is a bitter policeman. David Wilmot is the clueless young priest. Kelly Reilly plays Father James’s fragile daughter, recovering from a suicide attempt. And the great M. Emmett Walsh is the old novelist.
Not that everyone in Calvary is on top form- I am not quite sure what Aidan Gillen is going for in his depiction of the town doctor, but he is wildly out of place in an over-the-top performance, complete with villainous leering and an accent plucked from the Hollywood School of Oirish Studies (Gillen filmed Calvary while still shooting Game of Thrones, hence the presence of the Snidely Whiplash moustache).
Verdict: Five out of Five