According to Christian doctrine, Calvary was the spot on which Christ was crucified. It’s an appropriate title for this dark Irish drama, which follows a week in the life of a priest only trying to do what is best for his thankless community. This isn’t a story of Catholic piety triumphing over the den of sin that is society; this is the story of one man who belongs to a religious order that itself is filled with flawed and sinful people, yet is still trying to hold himself up to the ideals that he thinks his god commands of him. He acknowledges that he isn’t perfect, and the film certainly acknowledges Catholicism’s sins over the centuries, but this is the story of a man simply doing his best, not preaching dogma to an ignorant mass.
I feel it necessary to lay that groundwork for this review, because by acknowledging what could be many people’s first impression of the plot, I hope to communicate that the film is not as preachy as it sounds. The first shot of the film sets up our premise: an anonymous parishioner tells Father James in a confessional that he was molested by a priest as a young child. The parishioner goes on to say that the abuser has since died, and so, in order to send the Catholic Church a message, he is going to kill Father James in one week’s time. We then follow Father James for seven days, as we meet the townspeople he ministers to, easily recognizing their sinful nature and all the while wondering which of them could be the mysterious parishioner.
The film has a very dry and dark sense of humor, very similar to another famous bit of Irish cinema, In Bruges. (This only makes sense, seeing as the two films’ directors are brothers.) If you appreciated the humor in that movie, you’ll likely appreciate it here, though humor is much less the focus here compared to the study of Father James’s character. Brendan Gleeson gives a fantastic performance of a man gradually coming to terms with his own impending death, as well as his doubts about how worthwhile his vocation really is when hardly anyone does much more than mock it. The whodunit plot isn’t even the primary narrative focus, as one gets the distinct impression that Father James has already figured out the parishioner’s identity, but is more concerned about what to do about that knowledge than anything else.
That said, I found the film’s main problems to be technical in nature. There is an overabundance of characters in Father James’s small town, and the film tries a little too hard to give enough of them screentime so that we may see their sinful ways and try to deduce which of them is the parishioner. However, by doing so, the film crams itself full of exceedingly short and inconsequential scenes with little to no transition, creating a disorienting perception of time and space as we’re pulled from one location to another with no indication that any time has passed. This is especially prevalent in the latter half of the film, and eventually the red herring villagers become little more than white noise.
Nevertheless, I wouldn’t let that dissuade you from enjoying a fantastic character study. It’s easy to worry that a film about a man of God will be religiously preachy and pushy, but Calvary refreshingly is not. This is just the story of a troubled man, looking to help in any way he can, and wondering if that help will ever be enough. It’s ultimately a relatable and very human story, and one that I heartily recommend.
Know of any other films that handle their religious content in such a non-patronizing manner? Let me know in the comments below.