*** Spoiler Warning! No, I’m not going to be discussing the ending of the film, but there are specific plot points that I feel it impossible to fully discuss this movie without revealing, the first of which is the blockquote directly below. So, if you have any intention of seeing this film (and I’ll go ahead and say here that I highly recommend that you do) and want to, as I did, and am quite happy that I did, go into it without really knowing much about it at all, then I STRONGLY recommend seeing it first, then coming back here to read my comments. You have been warned. ***
Scene from a confessional. We can see the priest and his reactions, but have no idea of the identity of the other speaker, except for hearing his voice. The character on the other side of the confessional screen begins:
Nothing to say?
It’s certainly a startling opening line.
What is that, irony?
I’m sorry. Let’s start again. What do you want to say to me? I’m here to listen to whatever you have to say.
I was raped by a priest when I was seven years old. Orally and anally as they say in the court reports. This went on for five years; every other day for five years. I bled a lot, as you can imagine I bled a terrible amount.
Have you spoken to anyone about this?
I’m speaking to you, now!
I mean, have you sought professional help?
Why? So I could learn how to cope? So that I could learn how to live with it? Maybe I don’t want to cope. Maybe I don’t want to learn how to live with it.
Did you make a formal complaint? Did you testify?
The man’s dead.
I don’t know what to say to you. I have no answer for you, I’m sorry.
What good would it do anyway if he were still alive? What would be the point of killing the bastard? That would be no news. There’s no point in killing a bad priest. Killing a good one? That would be a shock! They wouldn’t know what to make of that. I’m going to kill you, Father. I’m going to kill you ’cause you’ve done nothing wrong! I’m going to kill you because you’re innocent. Not right now, though. I’ll give you enough time to put your house in order. Make your peace with God. Sunday week, let’s say. I’ll meet you down by the beach, down by the water there. Killing a priest on a Sunday! That’ll be a good one. Nothing to say to me, Father?
Not right now, no. But I’m sure I’ll think of something by Sunday week.
That’s the dialogue that opens the movie Calvary and which propels everything that follows. And honestly, if reading that doesn’t compel you to want to see the film, I’m not sure anything I’m going to say hereafter will. Of course, that’s certainly not going to stop me writing about it, now is it? After all, that’s what you come here for, right?
There is, at its core, more than a touch of High Noon in Calvary, for like that movie, the foremost question in the film is not “Whodunnit?” or “How?”. It can’t be classified as a whodunnit because although we as the audience (at least upon first viewing) may not know who the killer is, his intended victim, Father James does, because he of course recognizes the voice on the other side of the screen as one of his parishioners. Nor can the question be how because, as you can see from the section above, he tells the Father just when, where, and pretty much how right up front.
No, those are not the questions that writer/director John Michael McDonagh is interested in exploring. Instead, the film is more of an examination of just what effect knowing about his imminent demise will have upon the small-town Irish priest, how that knowledge will afffect him not only personally, but in his interactions with his parishioners (including the man he knows plans to kill him), and what steps he will or won’t take to avoid that outcome.
For the viewer, as much as for the Father, the tension is heightened the closer the deadline comes, because we are never really made privy to the inner thoughts of the priest, but are instead left to interpret his varied actions and interactions on our own.
Obviously, this is one of those films that will actually reward at least one repeat viewing, because, much like, say, The Sixth Sense, with its twist at the end, once the viewer actually knows the identity of the would-be killer and the eventual outcome of the story, there is that desire to go back and re-watch the movie with that knowledge in hand.
Of course, there are other questions that both the audience and Father Gleeson must confront during the week between the opening confession and the assigned day of reckoning. Questions such as: Is the Father truly a good man? How does one even go about defining such a thing? How does much effect can one man really have in other people’s lives, especially when that man is a priest and many of the people he is dealing with are non-believers? Even if one accepts that Fr. Gleeson is good then how does/should he react when ofttimes his words and actions are met with outright ridicule? What is it that keeps him going in the face of all of these things?
And there are also questions that the audience is, its own way, forced to confront, chief among them being how would we react in a similar situation, and beyond that, how do we both expect and wish Fr. Gleeson to react? Do we want him to break the confessional seal and reveal the identity of his potential killer? Do we want him to fight back or defend himself? Do we wnat him to accept his threatened fate?
And in the end, how do we feel about his ultimate decision and its outcome?
As far as the directing of McDonagh and the acting of star Brendan Gleeson as Father James, both rank extremely high in my book. Though this is not the first film I’ve seen with Gleeson in it, it’s certainly his first starring role for me, and I can’t wait to see what he does for a follow-up.. Actually, what I’m really looking forward to is getting a chance to watch The Guard, McDonagh’s first feature film which also stars Gleeson and has received similar high praise as that heaped upon Calvary.
McDonagh also truly takes advantage of the natural beauty of his setting, making the most of the coastline town and the way that it, too, affects the town and its people, and making the the film not only tension-filled, but a wonderful thing to behold.
Beyond that, I’ll simply say that though it’s still relatively early in the year for such statements, there is no doubt in my mind that Calvary will be topping my end-of-the year favorites list and will definitely take a place among my all-time favorites. Yes, I liked it that much.
So I say “Go see it”, but I also include the caveat that once you have you’re likely to want to see it again. Not that that’s a bad thing at all.
Here, as usual, is a trailer, but I’ll be honest, you may very well want to skip it, especially if you’re going to watch the movie soon.
- ‘Calvary’ is a vivid portrait of a real priest with the heart of a shepherd (newadvent.org)
- In The Wake Of The Catholic Sex Abuse Scandal (dish.andrewsullivan.com)
- No Forgiveness, But A Kind Of Cinematic Grace In ‘Calvary’ (npr.org)
- ‘Calvary’ Review (screenphiles.com)