The words black comedy, priests and rural Ireland come with their own shorthand, such is the shadow Craggy Island’s parochial house casts upon ecclesiastical humour. John Michael McDonagh, writer / director of Calvary, knows this of course; Pat Shortt – Tom, the mono-browed homicidal maniac in Father Ted – crops up here as the landlord of the village pub. Killian Scott as young dullard Milo possesses mannerisms straight from the Dougal McGuire textbook. The sparse titles feature a fly-past of the Sligo coastline that lacks only a whimsical Neil Hannon number over the top.
And were Calvary a simple black comedy concerning ecumenical behaviour in rural Ireland – well, we could throw a few unfavourable comparisons around the place before doing something more interesting instead. As it is, such is the depth and compassion behind McDonagh’s second directorial effort that not only are these Father Ted references superfluous, but categorizing this as comedy undersells this proposition entirely.
Which is another way of saying that the film’s intelligence is how the laughs – such dark and awkward laughs – are gently and unceremoniously interwoven into a narrative that operates on several levels.
The premise: Father James Lavelle – played in beautifully understated fashion by Brendan Gleeson – is confronted by a voice in the confessional; the unseen presence is going to kill him. Because he wants to kill a good priest. On the following Sunday. To give him time to get his affairs in order.
What follows are a series of chronologically-ordered vignettes, some integral to the plot, others less so, as village life and Church duty entwine, and the fateful Sabbath approaches. This enables Calvary to operate on one level as a whodunnit (or rather, a “who-said-it-and-are-they-going-to-carry-it-out”). We watch as Fr. Lavelle interacts with his flock: Dylan Moran, the drunken misanthropic tycoon. Chris O’Dowd, the cuckold butcher, and Orla O’Rourke as his amorous wife. The doctor, the police detective, the car mechanic from Sierra Leone, and a delightful series of cameos by M Emmet Walsh as the reclusive American writer – the ensemble is deftly positioned , dangling loose notions of motive and culpability before the viewer’s attentions.
There’s a linear story here – but again, the whodunnit element is never gratuitous or oversold (even if the movie’s dénouement doesn’t segue as snugly with the general tone as I’d have preferred). For Calvary works best as a mediation upon life, and love, and death, and absolution. This is sharply conveyed through the characters of Fiona (Kelly Reilly) – Lavelle’s grown-up daughter, craving support after fleeing London with tell-tale wounds on her wrists – and Lavelle himself, the vessel through which McDonagh explores what contemporary Ireland represents, now that the Church has ceded moral authority through its own insidious actions. Gleeson’s priest is a character of layered complexities, challenged by duality, his calling, and human fallibility. As events unwind in increasingly darker circles, he’s forced to face his demons – not necessarily straight-on, but at oblique angles, and it’s this that leave the film’s themes percolating long after the end credits roll.
The attraction of certain movies isn’t always an easy extrapolation, such is how the detailing oh-so often plays out. Calvary is beautifully shot, the grey tint to the film, and the use of County Sligo’s landscape both fostering a brooding, swashing uncertainty. The casting’s spot on, characterisation and the inter-relational etiquette between them adding to the satire. And whilst the subject matter is far from easy going, each theme is examined with enjoyable slyness – a nod and a wink, no recourse to heavy-handednesses. If taken at face value, the itinerary behind that fateful week doesn’t always hang together – there’s a fire, and an unexplained death in Lavelle’s garden, and both stretch at context, whilst as previously mentioned, the finalé is perhaps a little too rushed, too dramatic. But as a wider rumination upon strength, and weakness, and forgiveness, Calvary is one of the most thought-enhancing studies of recent times.
Also: these cows are very small; those are far away.