Magazine | September 8, 2014, Issue

A Good Man in Ireland

Brendan Gleeson in Calvary (Fox Searchlight)

Here are words I did not expect to write a few short months ago: Two of the very best movies released this summer are portraits of a serious (if troubled) religious faith. And not only religious faith — Catholic faith. And not only Catholic faith, but the faith of Catholic religious — first a soon-to-be-nun in the black-and-white, Polish-language Ida (reviewed in the July 7 issue of NR) and now an aging but still vital priest in the very vivid, very Irish Calvary.

The priest is played by Brendan Gleeson, his heavy body bound in an antique, bright-buttoned cassock, and his soul wearied by his erring, disillusioned, disbelieving flock. He is Father James, the pastor of a small town on Ireland’s gorgeous, windswept western coast — a good priest, most everyone in the neighborhood agrees, even as they mock him, prod him, and sometimes snarl at him, making him a scapegoat for all the Irish Church’s sins.

For most, the scapegoating is a matter of imprecations only; but one of his parishioners, who comes into the confessional as Calvary begins, has something more literal in mind. After describing how he was raped and molested by a priest as a child, he informs Father James that he intends to murder him a week hence, on the nearby beach — killing a good priest as a kind of ironic judgment on so many wicked clerics’ sins.

Father James knows the potential murderer’s identity, but the audience does not, so the rest of the film — covering the seven days from threat to possible consummation — has a touch of the whodunit, with each villager being sized up as a potential killer. But really it feels more like a medieval morality play — or perhaps an anti-morality play, since instead of embodiments of virtues trying to lead an Everyman to heaven, the players are mostly embodiments of fallenness, there to tempt the good father to despair. (Of course it’s a passion play as well, but I think Gethsemane, not Calvary itself, is actually the best New Testament correlative for what this story wants to show.)

So we get a love triangle featuring a proud adulteress (Orla O’Rourke) with her cuckolded husband (Chris O’Dowd) and her African-émigré lover (Isaach De Bankolé), one of whom has taken fists to her of late; a barkeep whose Buddhism doesn’t seem to help him much with anger management; a police chief who’s entertaining a crucifix-wearing rent boy when Father James comes to call; a financier (Dylan Moran) implicated in Ireland’s economic troubles who keeps pressing the priest to accept a tainted donation; a serial killer (Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan’s son) the priest visits in jail; and a surly, aged novelist (M. Emmet Walsh) holed up with his latest book and contemplating suicide.

Our beset priest also has a daughter (Kelly Reilly) — he was married, and then widowed, before finding his vocation — who comes to stay with him for a few days following her suicide attempt; a fellow priest (David Wilmot) who’s a self-absorbed milquetoast ill suited to the role; and a frequent sparring partner in the form of the faintly devilish local surgeon (Aidan Gillen), who officially fills the role of village atheist.

None of this is played for perfect realism: The director, John Michael McDonagh, is the less famous (for now) brother of the Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, and there is a deliberately stagy quality to the proceedings, the people, and their place. The characters trade barbs and aphorisms that feel rehearsed, comment frequently on their own roles and dialogue, and bump into one another rather more predictably than you’d expect even in the smallest town. Except for Father James (and at moments, his daughter), no one really escapes two-dimensionality: We are watching archetypes in a parable, and the characters mostly seem to know it.

This style can be frustrating, at once precious and antique, and at times McDonagh’s script had me wincing. But give yourself to it a bit, accept the not-quite-realism, and you’ll find Calvary packs real power. Indeed, it deserves to join John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt — an actual play before it was a movie, which had “A Parable” as its Broadway subtitle — as artistic bookends for Catholicism’s sex-abuse crisis: Just as Shanley’s story grasped the complex etiology of the scandal, the tangle of liberal and conservative impulses that furthered it and let it fester, so does McDonagh grasp the deep tragedy of its aftermath, the way that the good has been discredited along with the evil, and the way that the taint of scandal can separate sinners from the grace they obviously need.

For Ireland, in particular, where the scandal has led to deeper, faster secularization — a rejection of the best along with the worst, leaving Irish culture rootless and adrift — the allegory is almost perfectly exact. But of course this isn’t just an Irish story; it’s a Christian story, period. And the important question, asked but not answered by this small yet expansive film, isn’t whether the virtuous suffer for the sins of evil men; it’s whether, and in what form, there can be a resurrection.

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