Monday 22 September 2014

Review: Calvary

Year: 2014
Director: John Michael McDonagh.
Screenplay: John Michael McDonagh.
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O'Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach de Bankolé.

Synopsis is here

I enjoy films about faith. I feel much of this stems from my upbringing and my grandmother; a woman whose faith in the almighty seemed to never waver. When she was told about the ailment which caused her demise, as opposed to facing hours of operations and hospital treatment, she decided upon staying at home and going peacefully with her family as it was the “will of god”. I admire such a choice as much as I feared it. Possibly because I’m still young. I’m currently not sure I could make the choice so readily. Even if I was at the age she was.

For me, I find this to be an often neglected cornerstone of faith, often glossed over by the more arrogant members of the new atheist movement, who are very quick to inform us of the corruption and wars that religion plays a part in, or how scared people are to find solace in faith. We often never hear of these folk telling us about what moral good that they themselves perform. All wrapped up in the sins of the church, some seem to be far too interested in maintaining the view that the world is an insidious and ugly place. One of my favorite qualities of my grandmother is how she interpreted faith as a source for good, no matter what denomination. I love seeing that in films like Calvary, a film that beautifully illustrates the idea that the goodness in faith must stand defiant in front of those who only wish to mirror the ugliness that resides within the world.

Calvary’s focus on its weighty subjects start with what sounds like a dark absurdist joke. Opening with a beautifully composed shot of Father James (Glesson) sits solemnly in the confession booth as a voice whisper to him that they first tasted semen at age 7. The more depraved may crack a grin (sorry), but this moment is a telling one. The Irish voice, the line of abuse, the troubled grimace of the face as the ears register what is said. One of the films subtexts, the abuse carried out by the Catholic Church is richly brought to our attention within minutes. The conversation only seems to get worse. The exchange digs deep into each participant psyche till we reach the inciting moment: the person we don’t see on the other side of the confessional wishes to kill the priest. To kill this priest, a good one, will say more things about us than if a bad one was murdered.

Father James seems to know his killer and after being introduced to the town’s oddballs and eccentrics, most viewers will know too. Writer/Director John Michael McDonagh almost displays the identity as an open secret. However, Calvary is more interested in the mysteries of our morals and guidance than it is about a maybe murder. Calvary holds some the darker humor of McDonagh’s previous effort, The Guard, but is much more meditative and pensive thematically. Calvery is a film, much like the slightly more pious Of God’s and Men (2010), which helps question the place of faith in a messy modern world.  With his fate considered sealed, James continues to provide penance and advice to those around, while they do their best to condemn him and the church and frolic in their impurity. Why does Father James continue his work with such a cloud looming over him? Why does he seemingly do little to try and alter the course?

The eccentric village folk do very little to help matters. At one point a resentful publican belligerently questions James on why the church hasn’t done anything to attack the banks, and their part in the economic crash and yet amusingly such thoughts fit snugly into more questions of who why and how we observe faith. To snub one’s noses at religion and what it may bring to some is of course the easiest thing. It’s also clear that Father James feels his doubts prick at him like acupuncture needles that are slightly too large. Then again, when it comes to faith, doubt can hit anyone.

Calvary may set up the idea that its lead is Jesus-like, but the film also does well to ground him as a man who lived a life before the cloth a man who pushed past the wrong to allow faith into his life. This is not a man born into the burden and there are times that we see and know that it must be hard to keep the halo from slipping. For a man of Gleeson’s size, he manages to carry such vulnerability with great balance. The boorish behaviour from The Guard (2011) is not shown here, but the sensitivity certainly is. “There’s too much talk about sins. Not enough about virtue.” James utters at one point. This line, like many in the film's screenplay manages to get under one’s skin for the better.

The film is visually based on sparse paintings of Andrew Wyeth, and cinematographer Larry Smith’s bold compositions illuminate the darkness that lies between each scene, but Calvary is anchored by the weighty performance of Gleeson, who carries himself like every inch of his soul is troubled by the unsaid burden placed around him. Yet James plays on despite the prickliness of the village oddballs.

Whether or not our protagonist of the story embraces or fears death is one thing, but the fact that he acknowledges fate as he wanders through what may be his last week becomes suddenly profound. In the slightly distanting landscape of modern mainstream cinema, which is often invested in near immortals keeping all of us safe, James’ heroism isn't about saving the whole world, but doing his best to affect the close ones within his, despite their naysaying. The fact James decides to do this through faith brings poignancy as those around him feel that they know better but do a little better for themselves. Calvary, like my grandmother, gives insight into how the small steps of faith can bring clarity and courage. Not only to those who believe, but those who may not believe. I enjoy films about faith and Calvary is a welcome and inspiring one.