Death seems to consume the small Irish town of County Sligo. The blue-grey ocean that borders its pallid beaches stretches to infinity. Waves crash against the black, rectangular rocks that reach out hopelessly like deific digits, long-forgotten obsidian coffins. An immense mesa looms in the distance, resembling a church’s altar or, perhaps, a tomb.
Calvary takes County Sligo as its setting, and shares with it an obsession with mortality. Death hangs over the film from its opening scene, where a death threat is delivered in a confessional to Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson). It pervades its every moment: the bandages on Fiona (Kelly Reilly), Lavelle’s daughter’s wrists. A coffin crudely, unthinkingly repurposed as a table on which to lean. A serial killer (Domhnall Gleeson), struggling to express remorse. Like the distorted skull at the base of Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” (which features prominently in the film), death is omnipresent but incomprehensible.
Calvary is a marvellous film. A miraculous film. It is a comedy; though a profoundly black one, earning laughs through a very Irish brand of deadpan cynicism (combined with, to quote the screenplay, “nine parts gallows humour.”). It’s a character study of Lavelle, a good man buffered by iniquity that tests his resolve, anchored by a performance that warrants Oscar attention it will not receive. He’s no saint, but a man – a man with too much fondness for booze, and a flinty, confrontational personality.
The film is, perhaps most successfully, an encapsulation of a place. A cinematic transportation so vivid and compelling that it produces a strange kind of tension, wherein place takes priority over narrative. It’s almost a disappointment when the third act enacts the necessary shift into drama, and away from a simple exploration of this town and its people. County Sligo – populated by Chris O’Dowd, Dylan Moran, Aidan Gillen, Orla O’Rourke, M.Emmett Walsh and Isaach de Bankolé (amongst others) – is not granted a naturalistic portrait, mind, but sketched with articulate, literate, sporadically metafictional dialogue. It is real without being realistic.
Calvary a whodunit (or a “who’s-gonna-do-it” as writer/director John Michael McDonagh puts it) as well, although the identity of Lavelle’s appointed assailant is a mystery to the audience only. Lavelle knows the people of County Sligo too well not to identify a voice. His position within the community is an asset to the film. People confide things to a priest they may not confide to any other, with or without the confessional seal, and this grants us unique insight into the inner world of this town’s inhabitants.
Fundamentally, Calvary is a religious film. That’s a dirty word nowadays, with American televangelism inspiring insipidly idiotic films like God’s Not Dead and Moms’ Night Out, preaching without sympathy or insight. This is a film that is both religious and about religion – to be specific, about Catholicism. Calvary takes its name from the site of Jesus’ torture and crucifixion; Christ analogies may be increasingly tired, but McDonagh demonstrates that they can still be potent, when embedded in a deep, critical understanding of Christianity.
There’s a critical engagement with Catholicism here, an approach that seems to embrace the philosophy of the religion while recognising and interrogating its flaws (I’m uncertain if McDonagh is a practising Catholic, but I have no doubt he was raised as one). If there’s an argument to be found in Calvary, it’s that religion is compromised by individuals, institutions and inertia. Individuals fail because they are fallible; whether the small failings of Favelle’s fellow priest, Father Leary (David Wilmot), or the deeply immoral actions of paedophile priests – a topic that arises against throughout the film. Calvary examines the failure of the Church as an institution: the Church’s cover up of molestation, the brutality of its missionary history, the way its decisions are driven by finances more often than morality. The way individual successes are subsumed by institutional mediocrity reminded strongly of In Bob We Trust or Mary MacKillop; inspirational Christians who fought against the Church more often than within it.
Calvary has its own flaws. Formally McDonagh uses crisp, gorgeous cinematography that conveys a sense of theatricality, well-suited to the lofty themes. This precision means that the off moments – such as the occasional, ill-advised use of Dutch angles, or a pool table conversation late in the piece that’s clumsily edited – stand out more than they otherwise would. Lavelle’s brief encounter with a young girl and her father emphasises the way paedophilia scandals have harmed the Church’s reputation with the general public; it’s an unsubtle, unnecessary scene that feels like the work of a less confident filmmaker.
Death might pervade Calvary, but so too does faith. Favelle argues that most people’s faith is a fickle thing, motivated primarily by a fear of death. Real faith, then, is something else; something concurrent with death, an acceptance of the notion of infinity and an embrace of unknowing. Calvary, better than any other film I’ve seen, captures and contemplates this paradox of faith.