Calvary (2013)

Director/Screenwriter: John Michael McDonagh

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By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers.

John Michael McDonagh debuted as a feature film director with 2011’s wry comedy-thriller The Guard, which became the most successful independent film ever made in Ireland and clearly established McDonagh as a major new talent in the national cinema. Like many of the new wave of Irish filmmakers, including his brother Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson, both of whom came from playwriting, and their forebear, novelist and poet Neil Jordan, John Michael’s talent has a highly literate, theatrical inflection that stands at odds with the mantras fed to modern film students. Calvary, his follow-up to The Guard, plainly declares itself to be no run-of-the-mill social-issues movie, even as it tackles some of the most pervasive and passion-stirring issues relevant to modern societies. Whilst the conventionally pretty cinematography drinks in the grandeur of Ireland’s rugged west coast, the drama is compact, even claustrophobic, befitting the film’s revision of an old and hoary theatrical event, one that used to tie together and define communities in festivals of religious fervour: the passion play. Brendan Gleeson, Irish film’s stocky Atlas since John Boorman made him a movie star in The General (1997), counters his lead role as the Falstaffian antihero of The Guard with a role here as Father James Lavelle, the priest of a small Catholic church in a coastal town. A cold opening sees Lavelle enter the confession box on Sunday as per his roster of duties. The man on the other side of the screen is silent for a moment, to the point where Lavelle is confused, but then the man says, “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.”

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Lavelle, startled, nonetheless utters the first in the film’s manifold self-referential quips: “Certainly a startling opening line.” The man querulously asks Lavelle what he means, and then informs him of his design. In revenge for the abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of priests, he intends to gain attention and make a statement by killing a cleric. Not a bad priest, mind, but a good one—Lavelle himself, whom he predicts will die by his hand on the beach in precisely one week’s time. Lavelle emerges from the confessional quietly shaken, but continues his holy duties without demur, alongside Father Leary (David Wilmot), a dim, rubbery poltroon of the faith. Lavelle reports the incident in abstract to his bishop, Garett Montgomery (David McSavage), and confirms he knows who the man is. The bishop tells Lavelle he’s free to go to the police because the man showed no sign of penitence and received no absolution, but Lavelle makes no move to do so. Instead, he picks up his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) from the train station. Sporting a bandaged cut on her wrist from a recent suicide attempt, Fiona has retreated from her London life to recover from the bleak depression that followed a break-up. Fiona has been in pain, however, since the death of her mother, the event that drove Lavelle into the priesthood, a move which Fiona felt was akin to being abandoned by him.

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The week before the next, fateful Sunday thus sees Lavelle engaging not only with his wounded daughter, but also the denizens of the town, still hewing to an old-fashioned sense of the job as one demanding an active interest in their lives. Lavelle is not an old-fashioned priest, however. Thoroughly worldly and experienced in personal folly (he’s a recovering alcoholic), he’s up-to-date on all the modern perversities he and Leary hear about in the confessional (“Do you know what felching is?” “I do know what felching is, yeah.” “I had to look it up.”). This fillip of modern lifestyle was mentioned by one of their female congregants, Veronica Brennan (Orla O’Rourke), who’s recently left her husband, the town butcher Jack (Chris O’Dowd), in favour of pursuing erotic dalliances around town, particularly with Senegalese immigrant Simon (Isaach De Bankolé), a car mechanic. Because Veronica sported a black eye in church on Sunday, Lavelle sets out to find out who gave it to her. Jack blames it on Simon, and Simon takes umbrage to the point of flicking a cigar against Lavelle’s chest and threatening to beat him up for his unwelcome prying. Veronica herself tells him more politely to mind his own business.

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Other people around town whom Lavelle ministers to, interacts with, or merely swaps jests and insults with, include Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen), a black-humoured, professionally cynical doctor who works in the local hospital emergency room, Mícheál (Mícheál Óg Lane), an altar boy who swipes communion wine and paints the coastline, and retired stock trader Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), who’s bought a nearby mansion with an ill-gotten fortune and now is stewing in a solitary, alcoholic haze of bile and self-regard. Lavelle also ferries supplies to an elderly American writer (M. Emmett Walsh) who lives alone on a small island off the coast. The writer is aging and asks for Lavelle to find him a gun so he can end his days when the time comes. Lavelle does obtain a gun, from Police Inspector Stanton (Gary Lydon), who entertains a wise-cracking rent boy, Leo (Owen Sharpe). Does Lavelle intend the gun for the writer’s peace or for self-defence?

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Ireland is a country wrapped up in a specific mythology that long since went international in fame and allure, one that’s both a blessing and burden for contemporary artists to work with. The last 20 years has seen both the boom of the “Celtic Tiger” and then the bust, and the ongoing exposure of the septic underbelly of the Catholic Church’s dominance of a society that might well be said to have swapped imperialism for theocracy in the 1920s, shaking up some of the most fetishized aspects of the Irish myth: poverty, religion, and detachment from modernity. Calvary’s essential conceit, mapped out by McDonagh in interviews, is the potent irony provided by setting up a good priest as the martyr for the bad ones in the context of an age when cumulative disgust can cause divorcement of the public at large from a once omnipresent institution. Calvary starts as a kind of deadpan situation comedy where the oddball assortment of characters and their helpful priest interact with barbed geniality. But as the film continues and deepens, jokey conversations quickly show real teeth, and Lavelle is quickly exposed to the level of real anger, contempt, and fear in the community, as cheeky humour gives way to purposeful mockeries and acts of licenced cruelty. Calvary’s title gives an immediate hint as to the oncoming stations-of-the-cross epic Lavelle is facing, his faith not so much tested as his commitment to his role in an age that doesn’t seem to care much for what he offers, even when he sees many proofs that his function is still needed, and especially when confronted by a seemingly imminent date with fate that demands affirmation of just how dedicated he is.

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McDonagh bites off as much as any artist, literary or cinematic, could chew here. Indeed, the scope of his ambition almost feels anachronistic in an age of oblique independent films and buffed-down mainstream pseudo-dramas. McDonagh’s writing pitches itself on the outer verges of archness, as his carefully studied characters exchange knowing witticisms whilst not budging from their sharply drawn, almost caricatured postures—indeed, a couple of them, like Sharpe’s Leo and Milo (Killian Scott) never quite escape the realm of improv-theatre exercise. Milo is a young, bespectacled, bow-tie-sporting gent who’s considering joining the army to release sadistic fantasies provoked by his inability to get laid in his small and claustrophobic town. Lavelle derides his plan and suggests moving to a bigger city where “young women with loose morals” are in greater supply. The village is a stage that only offers a small roster of major players, each one charged with a certain relevance to Lavelle’s predicament. Those characters seem to be aware of the roles they are playing, inhabiting types they know are types. Harte, tiring of baiting Lavelle for a moment, mutters that “the atheistic doctor, it’s a clichéd part to play – there aren’t that many good lines.” “You really should talk you know,” Lavelle tells Fiona, “Let it all out.” To which she replies, “Like one of those shit plays at the Abbey?” McDonagh’s highlights his work’s postmodern, smart-ass tilt with a purpose that finally reveals itself by the climax, as the film reproduces with slippery awareness that way the characters hold life at arm’s length with humour and wryly stoic pith that the unknown nihilist seeks to violate with intimate anger.

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Lavelle’s controlling viewpoint is a vital, subtle aspect of the film, as the increasing tension and darkness of his situation begins to colour every exchange, and every piss-take joke at his expense and provocation becomes more loaded. Historical abuses of the church, including Simon’s cool statement that “we’re not in the missions now,” are fired at him by several characters. Harte approaches him at the wrong moment with a bleak and horrifying anecdote about his early days doctoring in Dublin when he saw a kid left completely paralysed, blind, deaf, and dumb by an anaesthetist’s failure. The doctor suddenly plays the part of serpent in the garden, a satanic taunter armed with life’s dumb cruelty to goad Lavelle. The priest’s nerves have already been rubbed raw by a series of events, from finding his beloved pet dog with its throat cut to his and Leary’s church burning down. Whether these crimes were committed by his would-be murderer or others remains unclear, but it certainly seems that Lavelle recognises a common disdain for him. That disdain finds apogee when he encounters a small girl walking a laneway and chats amiably with her, only to have her father roar up in a car and furiously threaten him after bundling her away. Lavelle is confronted by the severed cords of trust and amity to which he’s supposed to be tied to his community, the assumption that he’s the force for good suddenly stricken and actively derided by Simon and publican Brendan Lynch (Pat Shortt). Lavelle responds by breaking his drinking ban, whereupon he gets pie-eyed and unleashes his own wrath on the publican by firing his gun off, shattering bottles. When he’s out of bullets, however, Lynch pulls out his own weapon, a baseball bat, and when next we see Lavelle, he’s washing a broken nose.

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Calvary’s seriousness of intent reveals itself steadily, a palpable anger and mournfulness about the State of Things, but this is also a vitally funny film, with verbal comedy lethally sharp throughout. Lavelle’s conversations with his melancholic daughter are laced with a spiky, rhythmic style of humour that suggests their deep accord whilst also defining the toey, touchy space each maintains in their mutually therapeutic exchanges. The film’s comic highpoint comes when Lavelle goes to visit Fitzgerald at his house to discuss Fitzgerald’s proposed, large cash donation to the church for the hell of it: “That interests you doesn’t it? he asks, “It’s goin’ to be a black day altogether when the Catholic Church is no longer interested in money, huh?” Lavelle finds Fitzgerald, completely tanked, seemingly determined to make some sort of point to the priest as he waves airily at artworks that have cost him fortunes whilst decrying his wife, children, and servants, all of whom have quit him, and mentions his quasi-illegal financial dealings, which might be investigated but certainly won’t ever see him imprisoned. Finally, for a last piece of anarchic one-upmanship, Fitzgerald shows off his copy of Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors.” “I don’t know what it means, but I own it,” he notes, not recognising the weird smudge in the foreground of the frame is actually a carefully distorted skull that can only be seen through a special lens, a memento mori inserted into the original painting’s apparent celebration of lucid, scientific achievement. Lavelle finally loses patience with Fitzgerald and turns to go after berating him for inviting him over merely to tease him. Fitzgerald stalls his departure by saying he can piss on the masterwork he owns, and takes down the painting for that purpose. Lavelle retorts, “Why not? People like you have already pissed on everything else,” and departs as a stream of yellow fluid begins raining upon the masterpiece.

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Whilst it could be said McDonagh’s epochal anger (albeit of a type many feel) is a bit obvious here, he’s made it, firstly, very funny and caustic, but also has contoured it into a drama that takes on a legitimate, even fundamental question facing most modern societies: as old faiths wane, what takes their place? In effect, who cares? What constructs tether a society together, beyond a mutually negative reaction? At its best, as McDonagh intends Lavelle to exemplify, the priest fulfils a holistic role that conjoins therapist, carer, interlocutor, concerned friend, public philosopher, and social worker, a contradiction to the modern world’s presumptions of specialisation that result in compartmentalisation. Harte can repair bodies, but has no feel for humanity; Fitzgerald is a member of a ruling class that no longer rules, but simply hoards and decays. Lavelle’s own outlook holds that his job is to provide “solace,” and later, at a crucial juncture, tells Fiona he thinks there’s far too much obsession with sin these days, and that forgiveness is underrated. This line isn’t given much weight but is very much the key to the film, and particularly the very final scene which portrays a stirring act of forgiveness and outreach that represents the triumph of Lavelle’s spirit. Lavelle reaches out to the cocky, provocative Leo, who cracks wise about his own sexual abuse by priests, having dealt with it in the utter reverse manner to the secret would-be murderer, by turning himself into an extroverted male prostitute.

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Calvary has spiritual similarities with many studies of faith and commitment, particularly Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), an evident influence on this film in the segmented vignettes of the torments and quandaries besetting both priest and flock. The film’s kin are also found in other studies in the martyr complex where the heroes find themselves faced with a choice between physical survival and moral success, from A Man for All Seasons (1966) to The Crucible (1996) and Hunger (2009). The latter film’s epic ethical argument between prisoner and priest in brusque, tart, Irish accents feels like close kin to McDonagh’s work, and though he lacks Steve McQueen’s gifts for alchemising his concerns into the raw expression of cinema yet, McDonagh remains clearer-headed about his hero’s confrontation with mortality. A sneaky piece of prefiguring sees Lavelle note two sketchy figures in Mícheál’s beach painting: Mícheál is bemused as to where they came from, suggesting they’re some kind of echo, but actually, of course, it’s presentiment. Otherwise, however, McDonagh steers far away from wrestling with the specifics of the material’s possible transcendental side. His concerns are worldly.

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Calvary also resembles a thematic follow-up to Antonia Bird’s once-controversial Priest (1994), with its script by Liverpool Catholic writer Jimmy McGovern, which similarly set up a pair of committed, faithful, but unusual priests, one gay, the other a pulpit radical, to face the modern Pharisees. Calvary’s new prognostication of the ills the older films identified looks squarely at a time when doubt is a way of life, and presents the unusual notion of its protagonist as scapegoat and outcast in a society where he would once have been automatically venerated, or at least tolerated. McDonagh’s smart enough to understand why, too, whilst empathising squarely with his hero’s battered sense of commitment and humane interest.

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McDonagh provides two deeply serious sequences that serve as pivotal moments, as Lavelle goes about the most important tasks before him as a priest and anchor the film and catalyse the darkening tone. The first comes with a very Dostoyevskian scene in which Lavelle goes to a prison to visit a former student of his, Freddie Joyce (Gleeson’s son Domhnall), who’s been imprisoned for life as a serial sex murderer. Joyce pathetically reports his desire to be hung in spite of the absence of a death penalty in Ireland, and speaks of fantasies about the afterlife when he’ll be reunited with his victims, purged of all his malicious urges, and begs of Lavelle an answer to the question of why, if God made him the way he is, he would not understand him. Lavelle answers with utmost consideration, “If God can’t understand you, no one can.” Later, he’s called to the hospital where Harte has lost his fight to save the life of a French tourist who was in a car crash. Lavelle sits with the tourist’s wife Teresa (Marie-Josée Croze) in a chapel, coaxing her through grief and doing his job’s ultimate function, acting as the midwife between states of existence, with unerring sensitivity. Lavelle encounters Teresa again at the point where his wavering resolve threatens to drive him from his town, and her deep gratitude and admiration arms him with new strength to return and face whatever fate has been allotted to him—to save a soul or give his life.

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The way McDonagh’s distancing ironies and those of the characters’ are entangled might, with a less talented filmmaker, have caused too much friction against the material’s deadly earnest elements and considerations, but for the most part they work well in tandem, and with gathering power. McDonagh sharpens this to a beautifully nasty point when a man is shot after preaching detachment from the film’s vital central problem, followed by the shooter’s angry declaration, “Detach yourself from that!” The finale of Calvary is enormously powerful for precisely its invocation of this shedding of posture and confrontation with immediate reality, in terms of cause and consequence. More than that, it’s an unsparing climax that surprisingly validates not just the potential martyr’s feelings, but also those of the wrathful agent, who screams with a fury as natural and potent as the rolling storm swell crashing on the coast, “I was one of the lucky ones! There’s bodies buried back there!” McDonagh manages to complicate rather than polarise the morality inherent in the final confrontation, as the fury and pain of the would-be killer is depicted with such stirring force that it presents to the audience the possibility that not only Lavelle, but the audience itself is not so innocent, complicit if only by detachment from the evils that beset the world and dog others like demons. By meeting the challenges he sets himself with unremitting focus at last, McDonagh redeems his flaws and arrives at a genuinely compelling and relevant piece of cinema.

  • Jeremy spoke:
    15th/08/2014 to 12:13 am

    You’re right to describe this film as ambitious – literary and darkly comic, stylistic, a whowilldoit, an allegory, socal commentary…It is a wonder that McDonagh managed to keep it under control all the way through to his signposted, but nonetheless shocking and gripping denouement. The ever darkening tone, didn’t make it an easy watch, but it was always compelling. I was disappointed in most of the reviews from the so-called top critics who either couldn’t be bothered to report or didn’t seem to notice half of what was going on. You note that the actors seem to be knowingly playing types. I think this is deliberate; McDonagh has made a modern morality (and passion) play, where characters are personifications of moral attributes. Ireland, perhaps more than other Western country, has certainly had its faith tested in recent years – shortly after escaping from the theocratic grip of the Catholic Church, it found the new Gods of money and modernity to be equally false. As you say, it does feel anachronistic alongside the many oblique independent films we have to suffer (I sometimes imagine Brian from Family Guy writing them). I have become very forgivng of films that aim high and fall short. I don’t think “Calvary” did.

    PS I thought Gleeson was great

  • Roderick spoke:
    15th/08/2014 to 4:10 am

    Very well said all ’round Jeremy. Although some major critics have indeed badly short-changed the film in remaining weirdly (wilfully?) uncomprehending of its method, it should be said it is still one of the year’s best-reviewed films — it has a 78 score on Metacritic. I got a good laugh from your quip about Brian writing indie films — does Stewie write blockbusters?

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