A Review of Calvary starring Brendan Gleeson…Jean-Paul Sartre famously said in his play No Exit that “Hell is other people.” There is some dispute about the accuracy of the translation from the French; one translator suggests that the line should read “Hell is the Other,” meaning that anyone other than the self can be a source of irritation.
Sartre’s aphorism certainly applies to the ministry of Father James, an Irish priest who serves a small community 35 kilometers from Sligo. The village is on the windswept North Atlantic coast (when is the Irish coastline not described as “windswept”?) which seems to be a fitting setting for a movie about the struggle between faith and doubt, cynicism and optimism, vengeance and forgiveness. A number of scenes, especially the dramatic final one, are played out on the broad and forbidding beach. Director John McDonagh interweaves panoramic shots of the austere but beautiful landscape, returning frequently to a forbidding hill that dominates the plain. But one can easily imagine the drama being set on a stage with a minimal set, given the importance of the one-on-one encounters between Father James and the various townspeople.
Even though Calvary is set in Ireland, don’t expect leprechauns or pious priests in the Barry Fitzgerald mold. Or John Wayne who wins the Irish lass. This film is the antithesis of John Ford’s gauzy comedy of an American who returns to Ireland, which, at worst, is a place filled with harmless but loveable eccentrics. This is contemporary Ireland as it might be imagined by David Lynch: edgy, menacing, potentially violent.
No one would describe these townspeople as charming or “filled with a gift of gab.” A woman married to a wife-beating husband and a young dandy with a taste in fine clothing finds, like so many Irish before them, that the island suffocates its inhabitants morally and culturally. They turn to the priest to approver their desired escape. A cynical doctor marooned in the west-country taunts Father James with tales of medical malpractice that result in patient suffering. An African mechanic from the Ivory Coast brings a load of post-colonial anger to the scene. A nouveau riche “lord of the manor,” financially ruined when the Celtic tiger quit roaring and abandoned by his family, spews alcohol-fueled nonsense in the cleric’s presence. Thus, the priest’s rounds are made to seem like Dante’s descent into hell, where each damned human being represents some sin – greed, lust, anger – on the allegorical chart.
Yet another troubled soul is Father James’s daughter. [He’s joined the priesthood after his wife and her mother has died.] The beautiful young lady feels abandoned by both her dead mother and a father now interested in the care of souls other than hers. Having failed a suicide attempt, she seeks out her father for solace.
Father James appears ill-suited to the clergy and there’s some question why he has chosen the profession in the first place. He’s a broad-beamed man with a shock of wild hair. He looks like he might have stepped off a Viking ship that landed on Irish shores centuries before. He has little in common with other priests. His assistant is a naïve prig with little understanding of human nature. His bishop offers milquetoast advice from his well-appointed home and rose garden. In other words, men who find it too easy to be a priest.
The film begins with a quotation from St. Augustine: “Do not despair, one thief was saved. Do not presume, one thief was condemned.” The quote serves not only as a notice to the uncertain salvation (if you believe in it) of these souls, but also to the character of Fr. James. Like Augustine, he has sowed his wild oats before his conversion. He’s powerfully aware that he is a flawed human being and that only a thin membrane separates him from despair and a submission to the dark forces that govern so many of the other characters. Finding little emotional and spiritual support in the dysfunctional townspeople, he briefly gravitates toward and draws comfort from a young French woman, a believer, whose loving husband has died in a terrible car accident on Sligo’s roads.
The film gets its narrative drive from the first scene, one in which the priest in the confession box listens to an unexpected threat from the other side of the screen. The voice vows to kill Father James the following Sunday. The reason? He has been a victim of sexual abuse from a clergyman and he wants to have his revenge. Any priest will do, and Father James is the most convenient. Thus, Calvary is, in part, a who-will-do-it? Each faithfully counted off day brings to our attention a new prospect. Though few viewers will be surprised by the revelation of the perpetrator, the mystery adds a nice tension to the movie that could be nothing more than a rogue’s gallery of twisted souls.
But what holds the film together and sustains the viewer’s interest is Father James’s negotiation through this field of doubt and despair. When the world is too much with us, what are the values that will sustain us? What is the wisdom that enables us to see beyond Calvary? Brendan Gleeson’s Father James makes these questions come alive.
Alas, Gleeson, though to have a chance at an Academy Award nomination in the Best Actor category, was denied. Calvary is not available on DVD and Netflix.