Calvary Review

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The year of our Lord 2014 is perhaps not the best of times to be a Roman Catholic priest in Ireland.

If you haven’t been imprisoned for the abuse of the younger members of your flock than the chances are you are delivering your weekly sermon in a dilapidated church before a couple of elderly ladies who stopped reading newspapers some years ago.

Your weekly offertory collection, once a reliable source of income, is now disappointingly austere and not sufficient to clean the external facades of your recently vandalized house of worship.

Ironically, forgiveness has become something of a rare commodity in these parts.

So for Brendan Gleason’s Father James Lavelle, the central character of John Michael MacDonagh’s new film Calvary, hearing the news that one of his parishioners intends to execute him in cold blood may well come as a blessed relief.

His would-be killer, an unseen voice behind a confessional screen, was repeatedly abused by priests as a boy. He declares his motive. To kill a paedophile priest won’t upset anyone.

To kill a kind priest would be far more shocking. A time and location for the proposed murder are agreed.

This being a small parish in a remote corner of Western Ireland Fr James knows full well the identity of his nemesis.

However going to the police is not an option as the local superintendent isn’t all that keen on the old church these days and, rather more pertinently, for now no actual crime has been committed.

In fact Fr James finds apathy, or more often than not outright hostility wherever he goes in his beautiful little parish, it is soon apparent that most of his congregation have the motivation to end him one way or another.

What follows is a series of encounters with the parishioners and the priest, who also has to reconcile the relationship with his estranged and troubled daughter visiting from London.

While we piece together the mystery of the assailant’s identity Fr James sorts out his affairs, seemingly happy to accept his brutal denouement.

If this reads as a regulation murder mystery film than be aware that it is actually far more than this.

Calvary, the follow up to MacDonagh’s splendid debut feature The Guard, is a marvellously realised essay on the impact of the catholic priesthood scandal in recession hit rural communities of Ireland.

Similar in style to his debut, beautifully shot and darkly comic in style, Calvary has the rich feel of an old fashioned spaghetti western. The narrative is underpinned by a wonderfully menacing soundtrack.

MacDonagh’s script is at turns funny and moving and almost seems to play out as a last ditch attempt to save the Catholic Church in Ireland from total destruction by choosing to portray the story of an honourable man, a would be modern day martyr, trying to do his job in impossible circumstances.

The supporting characters are all hugely likeable, despite most of them clearly capable of being the would-be murderer. Chris O’Dowd stands out as a charming and slightly unhinged local butcher whilst Dylan Moran is suitably sleazy as a fabulously wealthy and corrupt financier.

But the film belongs to Gleason and his towering performance as the threatened priest dominates every scene of the film, the part clearly written for him. Such is the extent of the power and humanity he brings to every role he plays it is now difficult to think of a finer actor working today.

And whilst Pope Francis is busy appearing on Letterman performing a duet with Justin Bieber before embarking on his first stint as a judge on Britain’s Got Talent he may be well advised to free up some of the monies sloshing around in Vatican bank vaults to commission MacDonagh to make similarly fantastic stories of heroic Irish clergy.

Lord knows they could use the good publicity.

Frank Gardiner

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