Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Religion remains one of the most fundamentally difficult topics to tackle in cinema. Make a preachy film and the filmmakers isolate the skeptics and nonbelievers; make an aggressively pointed film and the religious audience grows divided over whether to support or condemn the picture. Calvary is one of those rare occurrences, however, where a film both celebrates and lambasts religion, creating an impressively detailed canvas of humanity and the crisis of faith at our core. The film focuses on Father James (Brendan Gleeson), a good man that turned to religion after his wife tragically died and his daughter lost herself in the midst of her family falling apart. Even though James was far from a perfect man, he inherently hopes for the best for everyone and seeks happiness and forgiveness for those that need it. Ironic, then, that the film opens with a man in confession telling the father that he will be killed the following Sunday to send a message to the world.
The victim had been abused by the Catholic Church when he was younger. The film’s opening line is shocking: “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.” Here, the story shows a good man listening to the rape that this innocent man faced day after day in his younger years. He blames religion and all men of faith for what happened to him, saying that a good man must die in order to make a strong statement about what went wrong. If a bad priest dies, then no one will care because, hey, he deserved it. But a good man dying? That’ll get everyone’s attention. James’ daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), visits town after her father reels over the threat he just received. She recently attempted suicide and feels abandoned by James, who left to become a priest instead of loving his daughter when she needed it most. She refers to him as “father” once, coldly drawing a parallel between the distance she feels from him due to his fatherly status in the church.
Writer-director John Michael McDonagh builds the narrative around a whodunit foundation, but the story navigates episodic scenes that are defined by the supporting characters. Jack Brennan (Chris O’Dowd) is a butcher whose wife is cheating on him; she indulges in plenty of other men and some cocaine when given the chance. Dr. Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen) is an atheistic surgeon that mostly believes his patients will die. He’s a pessimist at heart that brutally attacks and belittles religion for fun. Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran) is a wealthy, lonely man that cares more about artificial happiness than peace of mind. In one telling scene, he asks Father James if a painting he owns has any meaning. James asks, “Why does it have to have meaning?” Michael insists that everything has to have meaning in life or else, what’s the point? Fiona challenges that notion of meaning as well. In confession, James tells her that life has just as much meaning at 30 as it does at 60, but she thinks that’s all fluff without any substance.
Characters question the nature of religion and whether it is, indeed, a dying belief system. But Calvary isn’t a film that exists to tear apart religion at its seams; rather, it aims to introspectively look at a troubled protagonist that sees the doubt and hate in most people rather than the good. There’s a sense that humanity is inherently evil based on the narrative, a testament to Satanism more than any thread of Catholicism. Brendan Gleeson delivers one of the year’s best performances as James, providing him with a kindly invasive nature, using his religion as a means of exploring the tenets of being a good human being. McDonagh has managed to create a stunning feature marked by its challenge of religion as the ultimate punisher and judge. Characters remark that faith acts as a way for people to understand death, but if religion doesn’t mean more to the follower, then why believe in the first place? Calvary gravely voices that a religion’s dark past can overwhelm the present and make the most fervent believers question the foundation of their humanity.
Grade: ★★★★½ (out of 5)