J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Sundance ’14: Calvary

Whenever we see a picturesque Irish village with a curmudgeonly priest we are conditioned to automatically think quaint little comedy—the kind in which old people might get naked. This will be a much darker affair.  Reuniting with Brendan Gleeson, The Guard helmer John Michael McDonagh offers a sober meditation on faith, sacrifice, and forgiveness in Calvary, which screens today as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Father James was called to the priesthood late in life, after his divorce. Considered a good man by those who know him, he is completely innocent of the church’s abuse scandals.  Yet, that is precisely why a grown victim announces in confessional his intention to kill the upstanding father.  Murdering a compromised priest simply would not have the same jarring effect as killing Lavelle. With the one week deadline looming, Lavelle sets out to find the disturbed parishioner amongst his shockingly jaded flock.

Perhaps fortuitously, Father James will also have to deal with his twentysomething daughter, who has come to recuperate from another suicide attempt. They will have some unusually serious and heartfelt discussions throughout the course of the film, even though Father James never reveals the death threat hanging over his head. However, McDonagh does not use the confessional seal as a thriller device. Since the mystery man never asks for absolution, Father James is free to seek the counsel of his bishop and the local dodgy police inspector.  Yet, for various reasons, Father James is determined to handle the matter personally.

Given the title and the clock ticking down to Sunday, the symbolism of Calvary is almost crushing at times.  Nonetheless, its exploration of religious conviction is exceptionally mature and thoughtful.  Father James is a good man, but hardly a saint.  In contrast, the village is almost shockingly contemptuous of his relative virtue. If the Church’s problematic response to the notorious rash of abuse scandals is the lighter fluid that ignites Calvary, the moral bankruptcy of the increasingly agnostic village is the kindling that keeps it ablaze.

Throughout the film, Brendan Gleeson is pretty much perfect as Father James, delivering gruff one-liners, while facing a series almost Biblical trials with palpable dignity and resolution.  It is a salty yet mostly understated turn that might represent a career pinnacle. Likewise, Kelly Reilly is absolutely devastating in her big scenes as his daughter.  They are backed up by a diverse supporting cast, including the likes of M. Emmet Walsh and Orla O’Rourke, who always convincingly look and act like members of the dysfunctional provincial community.

At the halfway point, Calvary seems rather overstuffed with subplots and side characters, yet nearly each and every one pays off for McDonagh. It might sound like an opportunist broadside launched at the church, but its depiction of the good priest is remarkable sympathetic and nuanced. In fact, McDonagh maintains a tone much more in keeping with Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest or Jean-Pierre Melville’s Léon Morin, Priest than the churlish score-settling of Philomena. Highly recommended (especially to those most inclined to be suspicious of it), Calvary screens tonight (1/25) in Ogden as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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