Genre: Comedy, Drama
Directed by: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen
The transcendent beauty of Ireland’s vast countryside is barely given ample opportunity to display its magnificence on the screen. Despite becoming a popular location with film & TV makers, the triumphant grandeur of that rolling Irish landscape remains a cloaked mystery, waiting to be unveiled. Cinematographer Larry Smith clearly knows the hypnotic power such imagery can have on the viewer. His camera carefully sweeps over the immense fields of County Sligo, and round the sides of the Benbulbin rock formation throughout; the panoramic emptiness of the setting is awe-inspiring, yet the desolation it exudes is haunting. Rarely is imagery able to evoke such strong emotion… but then rarely is a film as splendid as Calvary.
To tackle a subject so potent and diverse as religion, particularly in an Irish setting, shows just how confident a filmmaker John Michael McDonagh has become. Admirable in his determination to examine the crisis within the Catholic Church from a different angle, McDonagh drives his narrative through Father James Lavelle; a hardworking priest within a small country parish, who’s determined to simply make the world around him a better place. Saddened by the many indiscretions of those who live in his town, Father Lavelle finds himself beginning to seriously question his own ethics and beliefs, when one of his parishioners vows to kill him during confession.
While the mystery of who plans to kill Father Lavelle takes the core of McDonagh’s narrative, it’s not what his film is truly about. As James surveys and converses with his assorted congregation, McDonagh begins to gently weave an extraordinary parable on faith itself. Soulful and spirited, McDonagh’s script asks hard questions on what it is to have faith and be faithful, to have or not have morals and integrity, and how such beliefs can effect your understanding of death. The writer/director never displays any ignorance when addressing such issues; though some questions are answered within the narrative, McDonagh never dismisses the intelligence of his audience and their ability to find the answers themselves.
As the beating heart of the story, Brendan Gleeson has never been better then he is here. It’s so unusual and yet such a joy to have a truly virtuous central character. Gleeson continually instills the film with gentle warmth, valiantly brightening a tale that’s strewn with darkness. Gleeson remains wonderfully understated throughout, a teacher who determines to offer guidance not judgment; be they adulterous parishioners, or his own daughter.
McDonagh draws his story with many varied and fascinating characters, all performed with pitch-perfect precision. While many laughs are injected into the film through Chris O’Dowd & Dylan Moran, the former giving a particularly brilliant performance, the talents of the cast truly serve to add heartfelt humanity to the questions of faith McDonagh seeks to explore. Aidan Gillen & Domhnall Gleeson darkly portray the more aggressive and sinful nature of humans, while Marie-Josée Croze is hypnotic and heartbreaking as the newly-widowed Teresa.
McDonagh’s most touching story though is of Lavelle’s time spent with Fiona, his suicidal daughter. The intimate relationship they share is propelled forward by Gleeson’s natural chemistry with Kelly Reilly. Yet Reilly’s deep-set eyes yearn for closeness that Fiona continually struggles to find; a moment of confession between them, within a confession booth, is likely to make even the toughest viewer misty-eyed.
When the credits do begin to silently roll across the screen, it’s tough not to remain stationary as a wave of thoughts, feelings, and emotions wash over you. McDonagh has displayed astonishing assurance in his ability to tenderly, effectively, and humorously explore a subject many hardened veterans of the medium wouldn’t dare to go near. What we’re left with is a brave and brilliant masterpiece that, like the glorious Irish setting, is a thing of beauty.