Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Calvary (2014) – Review

Review: Calvary is a strange yet effecting religious drama.

The film is about Father James, a good priest in a small Irish town. On an average Sunday, he is told that he will be murdered in one week by one of his parishioners because that parishioner was brutally raped as a boy by a priest. This man believes that killing a good priest will garner more attention than killing a bad one. Now, Father James has a week to put his affairs in order – but he also has a few choices. He knows who has threatened him. He could go to the police; he could flee; or, he could speak to this person and try and change their mind.

Unintentionally – let us call it a happy accident or fortunate coincidence – the last film I saw before seeing Calvary was The Passion of Joan of Arc (which I was revisiting, having not seen it in a few years). The two films make quite good companion pieces. The Passion of Joan of Arc is about Jeanne d’Arc’s trial, torture, and execution (burnt at the stake) at the hands of ecclesiastical jurists. Each film has a similar profound duality to it. In The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s direction presents the Catholic jurists in a very unflattering light. They do not know what to do with Jeanne, so they try to trick her and hurt her until she confesses to not being an instrument of God, but rather of Satan. They want to absolve themselves of responsibility (through historical context, we also know that they were under tremendous pressure by the English to find her guilty of heresy). The film does not take a kind view of the Catholic Church (if these are its learned representatives), but at the same time Jeanne is an incredibly pious and inspiring young woman (believed to be about nineteen at the time of her death). Her devotion to her faith is palpable and true. She is completely uncorrupt. She presents a vision of someone who has embraced God’s pure love, unshaken in her conviction even in the face of absolute cruelty and hate. The film exhibits the ugliness of religion and its beauty. So too does Calvary.

It is clear that writer-director John Michael McDonagh has a cynical view of the Catholic Church. The film is ripe with constant reminders of the Catholic Church’s crimes. The Church is to some extent only as good as the people who represent it. Here, Father James is a very good and understanding priest, but he has a dark side as well (his wife died young; his daughter feels abandoned by him; and he is an alcoholic). Father Leary (the other priest in the town) is fairly incompetent and probably should even not be a priest to begin with (it does not appear to really be his calling). As Father James makes his rounds around town, he is bombarded with the negative implications that his vocation seems to imply. He visits a cannibal in prison who asks him why God would make him the way he is. He is accosted by an angry father for walking near a young girl, not because he was behaving in any inappropriate way but because there is a stigma about priests and children. His friends like to remind him of the evils the Catholic Church has undertaken throughout time (and there are many). And yet, even though he is continually persecuted for his faith, he is still a good man, always willing to try and help his flock. McDonagh is unkind to the Catholic Church (which is not an unfair sentiment to have, given their history and current state), but even so he has made the film’s most authentically good person a priest. Like The Passion of Joan of Arc, Calvary has a duality. Despite all that is wrong and ugly, there is still goodness and beauty in faith. Both films, however, seem to put the emphasis on the individual as having the choice to be good or bad while the group (the Church) is by its own nature corrupt. The individual’s faith in God can be pure and beautiful, but that faith is corrupted by the institution of organized religion. Father James is aware of this but would rather look at the good in people than focus on the sins, much like McDonagh with his film. The sins (of man, the Church, society, and so on) are plainly present, but even so there is still something that can be beautiful about faith (and man). There can be goodness amongst all the rotten.

Calvary is structured in a very interesting manner by McDonagh. The film is very linear, counting down each day until the Sunday in which Father James is supposed to die. Calvary, as a title, implies that the film will detail a narrative of great suffering, maybe even one ending in crucifixion (literally or metaphorically); and thus, there is no happy ending for Father James from the start. McDonagh fills the film with Catholic symbolism. The film can be read as playing out the Stations of the Cross. Father James is condemned to death. He decides not to inform the police, instead carrying on with his work (thereby carrying his burden – his cross). He faces his failures: he tries to make amends with his daughter, he visits his former pupil who became a murderer in prison, and he succumbs to his drinking. He loses many of his most personal processions: his church is burnt down, his beloved dog is murdered, and his daughter leaves him to return to her home (although, they do find reconciliation). He tries to help Veronica Brennan, a loose woman in town who has been knocked around. He tries to help Teresa, a foreigner whose husband has just been killed by a drunk driver. He tries to help Michael Fitzgerald, a wealthy man who feels like life is meaningless and is emotionally detached (he was in finance, making millions off the losses of others, but not seeks some sort of redemption). He tries to help Father Leary realize that being a priest is not his true vocation. And finally, Father James is murdered.

McDonagh also explores the five stages of grief in the film (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). Certain characters seem to be personifications of these stages. As Father James makes his rounds around town, interacting with these characters, he seems to be witnessing people in different stages of grief in terms of their reaction to being letdown by the promise of life (and maybe even the promise of God or the promise of the Church). Life (God and the Church) promises to be a beautiful and wondrous thing that will bring you happiness and satisfaction, but then the reality sets in that life is really just a meaningless, tedious march towards death, with moments of happiness only existing as fleeting distractions – and they are hardly ever pure. The world is ugly and hard, just as God appears uncaring and cruel and the Church corrupt and greedy. Yet, Father James exemplifies that despite this darkness there can still be good and that meaning can be derived from our interactions with each other.

Father James too must come to terms with his own grief – be it over the loss of his wife, the pain his daughter lives with, or his own impending death. He decides to face his death because he has accepted that he must die to provide healing, both for the man who was wronged by the Church and to the Church itself. Maybe with his death, the Church will try to reform instead of constantly side stepping difficult truths. This is all interpretation, however, as Father James never explicitly informs the audience of why he decides to face his killer on the beach. Even though it does seem like Father James has accepted his fate, there is still a hint of hope that the man can be consoled and can forgive the Church.

In addition to all this heavy symbolism and drama, Calvary also has a wickedly black sense of humor and strangeness to it. The film is often very funny, but in an off sort of way. The characters that occupy McDonagh’s world are almost all odd ducks. The small Irish town is in a sense almost a surreal place, as its only inhabitants seem to be these bizarre people, who all seem to drift towards the fringes of society. Only Teresa, a foreigner, seems like a normal decent person. Fiona, Father James’s daughter too seems normal, except she has recently just attempted suicide and is clearly a damaged person. Father James, in this way, thusly seems to reside over a flock of broken people. He cannot run away because they need him.

The film is also aesthetically quite striking, with brilliant photography, design, writing, acting, and music. Tonally, everything works well together. The only slight flaw is the film’s pacing. McDonagh seems to deliberately pace the film to be very slow, giving a sense of weight to each day that passes. He also wants to make time for each of his wonderful scenes (usually an interaction between Father James and one of the other characters – speaking about some matter that really veils something completely different). The pacing works for the most part, especially when the film is considered as a whole, but in the moment there are parts that do seem to drag. The quirky nature and seemingly cynical approach to the Catholic Church will also put some viewers off.

McDonagh does a good job creating his characters. The supporting characters are odd, as stated above, yet have a certain depth to them. Initially, they seem like caricatures, exaggerated for effect, but as the film plays out a deeper side is revealed and they feel much more fleshed out. Father James is a great character. He is troubled, yet strives to be good and just. His darkness, however, makes him more relatable, because we too are imperfect, just trying to do our best.

Calvary is not a film for everyone – far from it – but for those with a dark sense of humor and an appetite for complex and thought-provoking drama and emotions, it is well worth seeing. It is in many ways a brilliant piece.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: John Michael McDonagh has two strong features to his name now with Calvary and The Guard. He has a great talent for black comedy, garnering strong performances, and writing fantastic dialog. I look forward to his next film.

Composer Patrick Cassidy’s score plays on the more tonally heavy nature of the film – the emotional toll of facing one’s own death as well as sounding influenced by music played during church services. It also features local Irish singing. Larry Smith’s cinematography is very good. He works in mostly darker tones, and the film features many beautiful landscape shots. There is not much color in the film’s palette, but when some does sneak in (like the church fire) it is quite striking by contrast. It is excellent work. Mark Geraghty’s production design is very simple and quiet in the film. His sets feel very naturalistic, which works well in allowing these eccentric characters to still feel grounded by their surroundings.

The cast is excellent in Calvary. David Wilmot, Marie-Josee Croze, M. Emmet Walsh, Isaach De Bankole, Pat Shortt, Killian Scott, and Orla O’Rourke are all very good in small supporting roles. Domhnall Gleeson gives a standout performance (though it is short) as cannibal Freddie Joyce. His energy is so electric and creepy. Dylan Moran plays an arrogant twit fantastically, yet there is such an inner sadness to him as well. Aiden Gillen too is fantastic at playing a complete bastard; though with his character, there does not seem to be remorse or sadness. He seems to be the way he is just to get a rise out of people (and maybe a little anger in there too). Kelly Reilly is very good at playing damaged characters. Here, she plays Fiona with equal measures of sadness and hope for the future; though she attempted suicide, she is nonetheless one of the stronger people in Father James’s life. Chris O’Dowd is wonderful in the film, giving probably his best performance to date. There is such anger and sadness and frustration behind his seemingly friendly and playful nature. It is very good work from him. Brendan Gleeson too gives a marvelous performance as Father James. He plays the man almost as if he were from a different genre, as though he were a no-nonsense sheriff in a western, but along with his gruff demeanor there is a true heart wanting to help. It is among the best work I have seen this year.

Summary & score: Calvary mixes its fiendish sense of humor and strangeness with its intensely emotional and provocative drama. The result is a film that is utterly compelling and challenging on multiple levels. 8/10

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