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Review: Calvary (2014)

Calvary (2014)

Directed by: John Michael McDonagh

Premise: Set in a small Irish town, a priest (Brendan Gleeson) is threatened by an anonymous visitor to the confessional. Throughout the next week he confronts the cynicism and wickedness of various people in the community.

What Works: Calvary is a movie that comes from a very interesting perspective. In this story a priest based in Ireland lives in a community that is almost universally skeptical of the Church and is frequently hostile to Christianity. However, Calvary is distinct from nonsense like God’s Not Dead and Persecuted. Those films feed into and reinforce the persecution complex of their target audience with absurd stories that demonstrate no understanding of religion or politics and have nothing to do with reality. Calvary isn’t part of that trend. The hostility that the priest encounters is partly rooted in the selfishness of the community members but it is also a result of the Catholic Church’s child abuse scandal. The movie presents a priest dealing with the fallout of the scandal and he is unfairly viewed with derision and suspicion. That’s an interesting perspective to take, one that is fresh within stories about religion, and despite taking place within a Catholic context the themes of this story are applicable to any group that suffers as a result of the actions of a few of its members. The priest of Calvary is played by Brendan Gleeson, an actor who has often been cast in supporting roles in which he plays gruff characters. In Calvary he is able to play a lead role and the actor combines his usual coarseness with a brokenness and a humanity that makes him a very empathetic character. Gleeson’s priest is a man who was married and had a child, and then joined the priesthood after his wife’s death. Both the father and his adult daughter (Kelly Reilly) are still reeling from their loss but the priest is a man who believes in the good. The movie pits this man against a world that perceives his beliefs, and to some extent himself, as archaic. The priest attempts to hold out his hope in basic human goodness in face of the agitation and wickness of the people in his community. However, the villainy of the community is never over the top and despite the heavy set up, Calvary is surprisingly witty. The script, written by director John Michael McDonagh, has a dark sense of humor and the supporting cast is filled with colorful characters. The humor makes the film work; it never comes across as sanctimonious. Instead, Calvary is a compelling story about a character attempting to hold onto hope and faith in the midst of cynicism and the movie ought to play for thoughtful religious viewers as well as general audiences.

What Doesn’t: In some respects, Calvary is too unrelentingly bleak. Everyone in the town seems out to get the priest and he is constantly provoked with his beliefs ridiculed and the integrity of the Church questioned. Part of the point in characterizing the community this way is creating a tension between this man’s faith and the hope it represents and the community’s rejection of it. But with the entire town seemingly on the priest’s case the scenario comes across stacked and more than a little unbelievable. The way in which the community of Calvary is slanted against the priest also makes its exploration of the tension between good and evil a little short sighted. All of the evil in Calvary comes from the outside. More resonant explorations of evil, such as Apocalypse Now, The Last Temptation of Christ, or even A Nightmare on Elm Street, acknowledge both the internal and externality of evil. While Calvary does approach the problem of evil with quite a bit of thoughtfulness, the argument of the film has a blind spot.

DVD extras: Featurettes and an image gallery.

Bottom Line: Calvary combines thoughtful filmmaking with wit, sensitivity, and compelling characters. This is a picture that has somehow slipped beneath the radar of a lot of audiences and critics but the picture is worth a look by both religious viewers and general audiences.

Episode: #524 (January 11, 2015)