Calvary begins with a close-up of a priest in a confession booth. “I was seven years old when I first tasted semen,” an off-screen voice announces. “Certainly a startling opening line,” the priest (Brendan Gleeson), who is known as Father James, responds. We could say the same of this film, which boldly lays out its agenda – witness its name, after all – not to convert us so much as to incite us to ponder our own agendas instead.
The unnamed voice goes on to say that, in a week, he will kill Father James because he is not a malfeasant like the priest who sexually abused him for years: The death of a “good priest” will make a statement. Cards thus on the table, James is left to sort out his affairs as well as the identity of his would-be killer. Consider this as a pre-crime procedural, then (the press notes describe it as a “who’s-gunna-do-it”)–one that is so formally constructed that we may surrender to James’ soul-searching in both senses of that term.
If all this sounds awfully literary – a sort of Swedish mystery set afire with ancient Irish angst – that’s not a coincidence. At a recent Q&A at The Museum of the Moving Image, writer/director John Michael McDonagh described himself as a “failed novelist.” But while many films of such portent might benefit from being a book instead, Calvary is ideal in its current medium. Its claustrophobic interiors, contrasted with the surf and sky of the Irish sea town where it is set, wordlessly remind us of the harsh beauty and isolation that is the human condition. And that world beyond words, the one that exists beneath the nattering of daily life, better evokes the divine experience, which is precisely what this film invites us to ponder during its 100 minutes. Continue Reading →