The film “Calvary” begins with a grim and unsettling scene that foreshadows most of what is to come. A Catholic priest, Father James (Brendan Gleeson), sits in the dim shadows of a confessional, leaning toward the lattice window. On the other side is a parishioner who is silent until he explains, his voice strained by rage, that beginning at the age of 7, he was molested in the most despicable ways by a priest (no longer living). He goes on to say that it is his intention to kill an innocent priest for the sins of the past. In one week. That priest, he declares, will be Father James.
And thus begins the priest’s week in this coastal village in western Ireland, a place that appears on the surface to be benign — the Father makes daily visitations, depending on the circumstances of those who belong to his parish — but is now, for the priest, shrouded by this threat.
And yet, what Father James conveys to all those he meets is a consistent and abiding humaneness. No matter that he is confronted at every turn with a bleakness that is chilling and a kaleidoscope of damaged people who no longer see the church as a source of comfort, but as a source of hypocrisy and venality.
It is soon evident that the people to whom he attempts to minister are almost caricatures of cruelty, adultery, wrath and despair. What they have concluded, as revealed in conversation after conversation, is that they no longer look to the church or its priests for guidance and succor. The time for that has now passed. Father James’ collar and cassock no longer symbolize to them a purity of spirit; rather he reminds them of the moral bankruptcy of a church that has, like them, fallen from grace. And so profound is their cynicism that it makes no difference that the man who walks among them wearing those very symbols is free of the dishonest pietism of a corrupt institution that is deeply flawed and a harbinger of a closeted yet shattering iniquity.
In an oblique way, “Calvary”is a mystery that poses the question: Who? And as Father James encounters the people of the village he asks himself, could this be the parishioner in the confessional. He does imply, later, to his bishop, that he thinks he knows the man’s identity. What he does not do is contact the police. An inexplicable decision, all things considered.
Clearly the connection between the church and its community has been if not broken severely frayed. The scandals of pervasive pedophilia, hidden behind the velvet cloak of the clergy, if not excused then tolerated, have taken their toll and produced a crisis of faith, seemingly in everyone except Father James.
Know that “Calvary" is a powerfully told film, a tour de force for the talent of Gleeson, who portrays with elegant restraint Father James, using the force of his size and visage as much as the quiet words he speaks to those he encounters. And this is, above all, a film of dialogue.
He makes no secret that he is a flawed man and therefore not a righteous one, a man determined to frame his personal ministry, through sheer will, with kindness buttressed by faith, absent any judgmental rectitude. What is tragic is that those he approaches, and to whom he offers a hand, do not see the man, but choose to see just the vestments.
Know that “Calvary,”while clearly thought-provoking and engaging, possesses a darkness that is embedded in every frame, despite the stunning emerald views of the Irish coast and sky, and its long stretches of wind-blown beaches. The contrast between these bucolic vistas and the local people is startling.
To conclude: Gleeson is supported by an ensemble of fine actors, each portraying, convincingly, a damaged character whose desiccated soul no longer wishes to be saved. If there is salvation to be found, they say collectively, it will not be found while seated in a pew or while gazing up at the dais during mass or listening to that day’s homily; rather it will be encountered, if ever, while leaning on the stained oak bar of a local pub.
1 hr 40 min