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Friday, August 8, 2014
And On The Eighth Day . . .
Gleeson as Father James in John Michael McDonagh's drama "Calvary".
Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com
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.
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