In the intriguing Irish film Calvary, Father James Lavelle (the terrific Brendan Gleeson) carries the world-weary look of a man who is used to being challenged, resigned to being the butt of jokes, unsurprised by hardship and setbacks and ridicule. He’s a widower who found his vocation and became a parish priest in a small town on Ireland’s coast.
But so many scandals have rocked the Catholic Church that respect for his station has curdled into something unpleasant and sour, and the fact that Ireland’s economy has collapsed doesn’t help to slow the vitriol that comes his way.
But the good father has a more pressing worry than drunks taunting him in the local pub. The movie opens with a surprisingly high-concept conceit: A penitent enters the confessional, and tells Father Lavelle he was raped by a priest as a boy. His abuser is dead, but in retaliation, he says, he will murder Father Lavelle, though he will generously give the priest a week to get his affairs in order. Unlikely, yes, but Calvary would be a very short movie indeed if the killer acted impetuously.
The film follows Father Lavelle through the week as he counsels his visiting adult daughter (Kelly Reilly) who is recovering from a botched suicide attempt, quarrels with his fellow priest at the church (David Wilmot), and crosses paths with various threatening townspeople.
This is director John Michael McDonogh’s somewhat clumsy way of introducing his suspects: the butcher (Chris O’Dowd), who may or may not have punched his unfaithful wife (Orla O’Rourke); her lover (Isaach de Bankole✔), a laconic African from the Ivory Coast; a creepy, cocaine-snorting doctor (Aiden Gillen of Game of Thrones); an oddball with an affinity for bow ties (Killian Scott); a rich guy in love with his own wealth (Dylan Moran); and a pub owner (Pat Shortt✔) furious that he’s about to be foreclosed on.
Filmed around stunning County Sligo on Ireland’s west coast, Calvary is a thoughtful, atmospheric movie despite the awkward parade of suspects and the fact that everyone seems a little too conveniently hostile (presumably so they can all be snarling and suspicious).
McDonogh (The Guard, Ned Kelly) paints the film with a menacing palette of greens tempered by gray, using the remote wildness of the location to reflect Father Lavelle’s restless state of mind, and he builds tension efficiently, using a traditional suspense set-up to explore questions of faith and responsibility.
“Faith for most people is the fear of death,” Lavelle tells a young widow in one of the movie’s most touching scenes. As the threats toward him grow more tangible, the question grows more pressing: Is he afraid to die? Will he flee to safety or meet with his would-be murderer and try to save the troubled man’s soul — and possibly die for someone else’s sins? Salvation, Calvary tells us, is a tricky state indeed.
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aiden Gillen, Dylan Moran, M. Emmett Walsh, Domhnall Gleeson.
Writer/director: John Michael McDonogh.
A Fox Searchlight release. Running time: 100 minutes. Sexual references, language, brief strong violence, some drug use. Playing in Miami-Dade: Aventura, Sunset, South Beach, Grove; in Broward: Gateway; in Palm Beach: Shadowood, Palace, Delray.