Film Review: Calvary

by Chad Liffmann on August 8, 2014

Trying to find light in a very dark place.

Chris O'Dowd and Brendan Gleeson are laughin' it up!

Chris O’Dowd and Brendan Gleeson compare serious faces.

Pay close attention to the title.  The word is ‘calvary’, not ‘cavalry’.  If you go into watching Calvary expecting to see a charging army on horseback, you’ll be sorely disappointed.  Calvary, titled after the name of the hill outside Jerusalem where Christ was crucified and also a term used to describe great suffering, is a very dark yet beautiful and at times humorously allegorical tale.  The film is also a pointed study on the rocky relationship between Ireland and the Catholic church.  It’s a very tightly bound film without much fluff — with no air to breathe, Calvary can sometimes come across as contrived or forced. This winds up benefitting the film, since moments of contrivance are superseded by how these moments challenge our morality and judgmental nature.  Calvary expects us to listen closely to what the characters have to say, but also to open ourselves up to heavy discussions on the nature of sin, faith, life and death. It’s a tall order, indeed, but one that the film handles intelligently.

Brendan Gleeson may never be a household name, but his acting talent should be admired alongside the likes of any name in the business.  Simply watch Calvary, The Guard (2011), and Kingdom of Heaven (2005) to get a very small taste of his incredible versatility.  In Calvary, he plays Father James, a well-read and devout priest who’s life is threatened during a confession.  The threat comes from a hidden man’s voice in the confessional, and though Father James acknowledges that he believes he knows the source, the audience must wait through an alternate version of whodunnit, trying to figure out who made the threat and if he’ll end up following through.  The ‘pre-murder mystery’ plot structure is engaging, but the web of characters and conversations between Father James and the oddly disturbed members of his town give Calvary its weight.  The town is full of suffering, and Father James must carry the heavy burden of it all, even as it begins to suffocate him.

Director John Michael McDonagh (The Guard) also wrote the script and inserts his dark sense of humor into scenes in a very natural way.  The humor never stems from gags or joke setups, but instead through natural one-liners and schadenfreude.   Cinematographer Larry Smith captures the Irish coast and rolling hills beautifully, giving the film a few majestic moments to resonate before returning back to the sad state of affairs in which the townsfolk live day to day.  I would argue that Calvary is summed up in a line delivered near the end of the film, one that directly contradicts everything we’ve seen leading up to that moment.  Maybe that’s why the ending was such a powerful finish — it makes you consider alternative ways of thinking about the things we generally avoid thinking about.

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Calvary is now playing in select Bay Area theaters.

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