Movie Review: Devastating ‘Calvary’ tests a priest’s faith

Bad news in the confessional: Brendan Gleeson in
Bad news in the confessional: Brendan Gleeson in "Calvary." | Photo 20th Century Fox/Jonathon Hession

‘Calvary’
★★★ 1/2

Part black comedy and part before-the-fact murder mystery, “Calvary” is ultimately a heavy-handed drama about sin and sacrifice that’s not likely to do wonders for the Catholic Church’s recent priest-recruitment woes.

That’s not the fault of Brendan Gleeson, whose powerful, fiercely moral portrait of a country priest facing a personal Calvary is reason enough to check this one out, despite the risk of a substantial post-credits depression.

Gleeson plays Father James, the priest of a small, seaside parish in West Ireland. It’s a town that’s not substantially different from the one in “The Guard,” writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s excellent 2011 debut featuring Gleeson as a cantankerous village policeman reluctantly teaming with FBI agent Don Cheedle. (McDonagh has also proposed a third film in his “glorified suicide” trilogy to star Gleeson as a paraplegic former cop.) This town poses more than its share of challenges for a concerned man of the cloth, including a dead-serious death threat in the confessional.

McDonagh’s opening scene is a classic example of how to hook an audience from the very beginning — uncomfortably. “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old,” says a voice on the other side of the grill from Father James.

The man then relates the tale of his ongoing sexual molestation by a priest and explains that he plans to kill Father James in a week for retribution. Not because Father James is guilty but because he is innocent. There’s no point in killing a bad priest, the man says, but killing a good one would make an impact.

And Father James really is a good one, though hardly an angel. We see that as he makes his rounds during what could be his final week, having decided to honor the secrecy of the confessional, though he knows who has threatened him, and despite the loophole his blasé bishop suggests that would allow him to turn the man in.

McDonagh dreams up a cavalcade of sins for the father to deal with, pretty much all of the big seven with the exception of gluttony. The town butcher (Chris O’Dowd) may or may not be beating his philandering wife. The local doctor (Aidan Gillen of “Game of Thrones”) is a nihilist who loves to snort coke and torment the father with tales of hellish medical suffering. There’s an aging novelist (M. Emmet Walsh) who asks the father to give him a gun so he can put himself out of his suffering. And a wealthy stock-market swindler (Dylan Moran) who cloaks his despair in booze and sneering contempt. There’s even a serial-killer/cannibal (Gleeson’s son Domhnall of “About Time”) in the local prison who enrages the father with his god complex.

It’s a bit much, at times, all the hard-core human suffering McDonagh packs into a seven-day stretch, including a visit by the widowed priest’s grown-daughter (Kelly Reilly) who has just attempted suicide at least partially because of his alcoholic shortcomings before he joined the priesthood.

It helps that he handles most of it with dark humor and provides the Father with a decidedly unconventional approach to spiritual counseling. When a sexually frustrated young man tells him he’s planning to join the army to make himself more attractive to women, for example, the father suggests pornography as an alternative.

It’s obvious from the beginning that Father James is personally familiar with spiritual darkness and McDonagh allows him, briefly, to revisit that territory. He also allows him to comment eloquently, from hard personal experience, on the nature of faith and the occasional distinction between that faith and Catholic doctrine, roundly scorned here by virtually everyone who speaks. Especially in regard to the damage done by pedophile priests.

Father James offers a redeeming contrast to all of that, despite flaws that range up to and include provocation of bar brawls.

Look positively leonine with his wild, unruly hair and beard, Gleeson’s priest has a matching fierceness, perfectly balanced with intelligence, sympathy, humor and compassion. Bing Crosby in “Going My Way,” he’s not, but that’s probably a good thing. It’s hard to imagine Father O’Malley standing up anywhere near as well to a death threat.

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