The prospect of Brendan Gleeson as a priest seems at once fitting and illogical. He’s almost always a glowering, intimidating presence onscreen, yet that intensity usually comes from a place of conviction. If he were to play a man of the cloth, it would be a man of the sort of cloth worn by Johnny Cash.
That’s essentially what we get in Calvary, in which Gleeson plays Father James, servant of a windswept parish on the coast of Ireland. A late-bloomer in terms of ministry, Father James took his oath after the death of his wife, a decision that’s caused tension with his grown daughter (Kelly Reilly). As such, he not only knows what things like grace and forgiveness mean in an intellectual sense – he also aches for them in his own life.
Writer-director John Michael McDonagh, who previously worked with Gleeson on The Guard, opens his movie with a whopper of a scene: an unidentified parishioner in the confessional booth tells Father James that he plans to kill him in one week’s time. (Gleeson’s face glows in the booth’s inky darkness, like that of a weary, bearded angel.) The parishioner is seeking revenge for the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of another priest when he was a child. The fact that Father James is innocent of such crimes is – perversely – exactly why he’s being targeted. In this man’s view, Father James is to be the sacrificial lamb atoning for the sins of the Catholic Church.
Gleeson’s face glows in the booth’s inky darkness, like that of a weary, bearded angel.
So Calvary, as the title implies, is an anguished Catholic drama, yet McDonagh also brings a certain lightness to the tale. The picture is mostly structured as a series of snappy conversations Father James has with the members of his parish, who abide him with a bit more humor (but still much of the disdain) expressed by the parishioners in Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. The townsfolk respect Father James’ intentions and intellect – “You’re just a little too sharp for this parish,” one of them tells him – but they have little time for his theology. And he, in turn, his no patience for their relativistic dithering. “That’s nonsense,” is his most common priestly advice.
After a while, this parade of colorful villagers begins to give Calvary the feel of a wacky television ensemble drama – call it Irish Exposure. Among these is a young man who can’t decide if he should kill himself or join the army, as well as an adulterous wife who goes out of her way to say hello to Father James before embarking on an afternoon tryst. Most off-tone with the rest of the film is the scene in which Father James visits a convicted serial killer in prison. Their conversation is interesting – McDonagh has a knack for sharp dialogue and Gleeson is at his belligerent best – but the situation itself has the air of contrivance.
Calvary is at its best, to my mind, when it eases up on the quirky supporting characters and grapples with Father James’ religious crisis head on. Should he expose the parishioner who threatened him? (Although the audience doesn’t know the man’s identity, Father James recognizes his voice.) Should he offer himself up as a sacrifice, as an acknowledgment of the sins of the church? Should he give up on the priesthood altogether? With Gleeson doing the wrestling over such rending questions, Calvary has all the character it needs.