Critic Vafa Motamedi explores the new film from John Michael McDonagh
Father Lavelle, an Irish Catholic priest, sits in the confessional as a man from his parish, unseen, enters from the other side. The man calmly informs Lavelle that he was sexually abused by another priest as a child. Desiring vengeance against the Catholic Church, the hidden man tells the priest that he will kill him in seven days’ time and promptly leaves.
So begins an astonishing piece of cinema that deals with loosening grip of the Catholic Church on the people of Ireland and the repercussions of the crimes it inflicted upon them. Lavelle roams through his small parish, encountering a whole host of interesting characters and over the next seven days, he struggles with his ensuing date with death, along with the theological and moral problems he meets on the way.
On a fundamental level, Calvary is the story of a good man amongst cynics. Father Lavelle, perfectly played by the excellent Brendan Gleeson, is a widower who came to priesthood late in life. Open minded, intelligent and with a strong sense of conviction, Lavelle is a principled man trying to operate in a world that despises him and all that he represents. We live in a world where the idea of the ‘good hero’ seems archaic. Modern film and T.V seem obsessed with morally relativistic worlds and the grim compromised anti-heroes that populate them. Calvary offers a fresh breath of air from all that. Yes, the world it portrays is just as dark, if not more so but though Lavelle possesses demons of his own, he never ceases to maintain his compassion and his integrity. The most difficult task for an actor is to make virtue seem interesting. That Gleeson does it so easily is a testament to his mastery of the craft.
The film is a fascinating examination of faith and religion. Do these concepts belong in the modern world? If not, what are they replaced with? This is a film all too aware of the problems that come with organized religion and yet seems even more scornful of the rampant nihilism, materialism and hedonism that fill the void left by it. Lavelle’s own faith is constantly tested by the cruel and indifferent world around him. A world, where death, pain and destruction happen frequently and indiscriminately. Where is God in all this?
In his wanderings, Lavelle comes across a series of townsfolk and their issues become Lavelle’s trials as he journeys to his own personal Calvary. From the atheistic doctor (who gives one of the most disturbing monologues in cinematic history), to the depressed businessman; the adulterous butcher’s wife to Lavelle’s own suicidal daughter, these characters are brilliantly drawn- humorous and sympathetic as they are loathsome.
Directed and written by John Michael Mcdonagh, this is a beautifully mounted film, with features breath-taking cinematography of the gorgeous Irish seaside and a spine-chilling score. The script is wonderfully observed full to the brim with magnificent moments that range from the hilarious to the utterly chilling. It takes a brave and steady hand to attempt to juggle such wide variations of tone but Mcdonagh not only pulls it off, he makes the tone shifts feel utterly seamless.
Questions of forgiveness and sacrifice permeate the film. Can we ever forgive and forget crimes that are so utterly reprehensible? Should we? Must the innocent suffer for the sins of the guilty and what responsibility do we, as a society, have for those sins? Do we run away from suffering or do we face it head on? These are not just Christian questions but basic human ones as well. It is so rare to see a film not only raising these vital questions but also trying to answer them. Too many films refuse take a stance and exist in an apolitical and amoral vacuum where meaning and sincerity of opinion are absent. Not so in Calvary. The answers that are given are not always clear cut and never easy but they are there and it is heartening to see a filmmaker attempt to seriously tackle these themes and to do so in such an intelligent, empathetic and eloquent way.
There are some films that entertain, there are some that make you think and then there are some that truly make you feel. Rare is a film that delivers all three. Calvary is such a film and a masterpiece it is too.
A tour de force from everybody involved and one that will undoubtedly be talked about for years to come.
Ten out of Ten