The many late-comers to the screening of Calvary, playing in Cluj in the Eye for an Eye section of films on the theme of revenge, got their own just deserts: they missed one of the festival’s juiciest opening scenes. “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old”, is likely to enter the annals among cinema’s more startling first lines, the more so since it ushers in a bleak, jet-black comedy.
We don’t see the speaker, just the character being addressed: a burly red-headed priest in the confessional. This is Father James, who further gleans from the interview that he has been selected to atone for the paedophile sins of another, unknown priest, long since dead. In spite of — or rather, because of — his innocence, he is to be a sacrificial lamb and slaughtered the following week.
The winner of the FIPRESCI prize in Cluj, Calvary was one of the few Eye for an Eye movies not to take the point of view of the avenger. Instead it follows Father James through the next few days as he interacts with the assorted loners, losers and misfits of his parish.
This is a remote, wild and magnificent spot on the west coast of Ireland. But many of its inhabitants are exiled here because of some failure or mistake: a nihistic trader who took the money and ran from Ireland’s boom-and-bust economy, a gay police chief who unwisely spoke out against corruption, an embittered doctor secretly tormented by the memory of a botched operation (it’s implied, though not stated, that he was at fault).
Scripted and directed by John Michael McDonagh, Calvary is a sort of whodunit in a half-hearted way, though many viewers won’t have too much difficulty guessing the killer’s identity. And in any case the film has other questions on its mind.
Unlike the priest in Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess, Father James isn’t bound by the silence of the confessional but he decides not to report the threat and to embrace his fate, meaningless though it may be. And besides, is he quite so spotless? A widower who found his vocation late in life, he’s a recovering alcoholic with a deeply depressed grown-up daughter whom — like most of his parishioners — he seems powerless to help. He mainly relates to his dog.
Abusive practices within the Irish Catholic church were also the subject of Cluj’s opening film, Stephen Frears’ somewhat glibber Philomena. And yet, while the other men of the cloth in Calvary are shown as shallow and worldly, you could hardly call this film anti-clerical. The chief reason: Father James is played by the magnificent Brendan Gleeson, who also starred in McDonagh’s first film, The Guard, as a corrupt yet somehow likeable cop. Calvary is another masterclass in moral complexity, lending the priest, as he fights to hold on to his faith, a tremendous presence and heft.
Calvary is not a one-man-film, however. Gleeson is framed by a terrific cast including Chris O’Dowd, Aiden Gillen, Kelly Reilly, Dylan Moran, Isaac de Bankolé and David Wilmot. Collectively, their performances build up a composite image of an achingly beautiful, spiritually and financially bankrupt country (McDonagh himself is of Irish descent, with the distance of having been born and raised in England).
Some characters are a little broadly drawn; the film at times nudges perilously close to Oirishness. It was a bizarre decision, too, to have the trader wide-boy character own — and, just for the hell of it, urinate on — Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors. Presumably the world-famous painting was picked for the honour because of the memento mori at its centre, but many viewers will know full well that it hangs safe and dry in London’s National Gallery.
On the whole, though, the film is impressively nimble at navigating its constant shifts of mood and dramatic register, ending with a kind of melancholy affirmation of grace. McDonagh may have described this, his second film, as Part Two of a ‘glorified suicide trilogy’ but in terms of his future career Calvary itself is very far from a suicide note.
© FIPRESCI 2014