Friday, August 8, 2014

And On The Eighth Day . . .

Brendan Gleeson as Father James in John Michael McDonagh's drama "Calvary".
  Fox Searchlight

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, August 8, 2014

When I first saw the word "calvary" -- in 2014 -- I thought, "isn't that supposed to read, 'cavalry'?"  So ignorant was I that I believed it was misspelled.  "Calvary", the word, and the title of a great new film written and expertly directed by John Michael McDonagh, means "to suffer immensely", as if to be crucified.  Yet "Calvary" is also about an "army" of flawed humans who close in on Roman Catholic priest Father James (Brendan Gleeson) during a week in the quiet Irish town he patrols.  He receives an early warning during a confessional by an aggrieved party.  There will be a series of abuses, some solitary, others more far-reaching.

Father James, who not coincidentally looks not unlike the Jesus we're accustomed to seeing on film, is forced to confront his faith and divinity via the souls he counsels.  He learns about himself.  A good, peaceful man, James's lessons torture him.  The army of "sinners" are a prostitute (for sleeping with a black man or being a hooker, or both?  I couldn't tell); a gay man who sounds like James Cagney, a suspected wife-beater, a soulless rich man, a corrupt cop, an atheist, a jailed murderer, an old man who wants to die, a man who can't communicate with women, and an abused woman who "enjoys" being beaten.  Father James's interactions with them are a mix of philosophical, cynical and judgmental exchanges, often ending in frustration, tension, disdain, pity or resentment.  It is the lattermost emotion that festers against James, consuming and confining him in numerous ways. 

The people of Sligo are like those in Ingmar Bergman's "Winter Light" -- borderline heathens.  Ruthlessly intractable, they are admirable and refreshing for their lack pretension or vanity, qualities James struggles with.  James is like Mr. Bergman's priest, a man clinging to faith as his doubts grow.  The Father's conversations with Sligo's disaffected are more for his benefit than theirs.  The supposed altruism in Father James's counsels becomes less obvious.  Sligo's pews though, are mostly eerily (and appropriately) empty throughout James' preaching sessions to the town's non-existent choir.  It's as if James's beloved church is of a bygone era, as one character says to him.  In this investigative whodunit one of the many questions "Calvary" asks is, who is more out of touch with today's world and in touch with abuse and sin: the Church or the "ne'er-do wells" circling it like hawks?  Or are they one and the same?

An intense film punctuated by bouts of beauty, "Calvary" is a gripping, arresting experience.  Its brutal comedy and atmosphere are huge characters.  Each scene is punctuated with dread, fear, illusion and unsettling truths.  Characters are immersed in their mindsets, which are nicely but crudely visualized by their backdrops.  With their smirks and knowing glares the souls in need may have one up on Father James, who at times looks like a fish out of water next to them.  "Calvary" moves through its eight days, with Father James a wandering detective of all the tawdry, moral and ethical affairs in the small pastoral town of Sligo, population roughly 20 or so.  The more James counsels the more disconsolate and hopeless he feels.  "Calvary" is a mental odyssey of soul-searching not unlike that the physical quest of Ahab in "Moby Dick", a book Mr. McDonagh's film references.

Mr. McDonagh, who directed Mr. Gleeson in "The Guard", makes you feel as if you're camped hopelessly and uncomfortably inside Father James's mind.  My doubts and deep cynicism about humanity grew as James's did.  Each of the Sligo townspeople could be manifestations of Father James's own making, projections or inventions of his subconscious, ruminations and silent battles within his own heart.  Are they real people, or are they "types"?  Are they a part of Father James's own personal history pre-priesthood?  Do they pity Father James as much as he pities them?

The dichotomy of "Calvary", astutely symbolized in many well-executed shots, superb cinematography and sharp edits, is of the natural states of being versus the nature of man.  Shots of birds, dogs, horses, begin and end scenes at times, starkly colliding with the abruptness of the human species.  It is this tension that converges metaphorically through style and dialogue as Father James endures a truth about creatures great and small.  There's lessening distance between the types of creatures and their purity and adulteration.  This brew is also spiced up by intersections of class, currency and chaos. 

Father James confronts his own indiscretions, ones his doe-eyed, suicidal daughter (Kelly Reilly, "Flight") never lets him forget.  There's a guilt and shame James wishes to purge, and "Calvary" reminds him that he too must pay his own personal penance.  Perhaps James uses the Sligoans to feel self-righteous, sanctified and morally superior.  There's a numbness and cool compassion that "Calvary" politely observes in Father James while the character's psychological torment and physical burden is worn so well by Mr. Gleeson in an excellent performance as Father James, a good-natured figure genuinely haunted by contradiction and the Good Book.  He dismisses a lot of pronouncements by the troubled souls as if in his own deep denial.  Despite his character's words, Mr. Gleeson lets you see that Father James is struggling deep within, trying to hold it all together while the sanctified wisdom he imparts crumbles beneath him.

Save for one person, everybody in "Calvary" is right, even and most especially when they are wrong, and Mr. McDonagh's even-handedness in his compelling allegory is so thorough you might think he's siding with the vices or imperfections in the film's characters.  But I believe he's embracing the honesty of their hypocrisy and the callous, cruel world they inhabit.  Despite his own history next to what would be clichéd characters in most films, Father James appears all too perfect.  "You shouldn't be a priest!  You should be an insurance banker or an accountant!" shouts one character to another during the film's third act.  We know this statement is true because by the time it is uttered we've seen the would-be accountant's eyes flicker lasciviously when a hefty money donation is being made to the Catholic Church, a place where sin has been rife throughout the ages.  It's a subject "Calvary" hardly shies from.

There's an unkindness and wickedness about "Calvary" that never abates.  Life isn't fair, nor is God himself, the film seems to imply.  So how is faith certain?  And if you doubt yourself, do you ever doubt faith?  If you doubt faith, does that mean you doubt yourself?  The Sligoans would likely say "no" to the latter question.  Jesus H.  This a town full of cold, hard realists.  For them God died a long time ago.  So did faith.  The only church for the folks of Sligo is the pub they drink in on a regular basis.  At times the pub is like a Last Supper of debauchery.  Abuse is the bane of their existence, and their knives are out for a carving ceremony of sorts.

Any hagiography or stylizing that briefly punctures "Calvary" late on doesn't mar the power and weight of the film's sufferings and accumulative pains.  I literally walked out of "Calvary" just before its final few frames.  It's the first time I've done so for a film that wasn't -- pardon the pun -- God awful.  On the contrary, "Calvary" is a penetrating and unforgettable film that resonates deep in the pit of your stomach.  I simply had had enough of it.  I wanted to exhale again.

Also with: Chris O'Dowd, Isaach De Bankole, Domhnall Gleeson, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, David Wilmot, Orla O'Rourke, Marie-Josee Croze, David McSavage, Killian Scott, Pat Shortt.

"Calvary" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for sexual references, language, brief strong violence and some drug use.  The film's running time is one hour and 41 minutes.

COPYRIGHT 2014.  POPCORNREEL.COM.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.                Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW