Tuesday 15 April 2014
If the late Iain Banks had scripted an episode of Father Ted, it might have looked something like Calvary.
Calvary is a meditation on what purpose and meaning the Catholic Church can have in the modern world, set in small-town Ireland. In other hands the result might have been insufferably earnest, but Calvary neatly sidesteps this trap with a wickedly dark sense of humour.
Brendan Gleeson gives a towering performance as Father James Lavelle, a priest living just outside the town of Sligo on the west coast of Ireland. As the film opens, he is hearing the confession of one of his parishoners, who calmly informs Lavelle he will kill him in eight days' time. The would-be murderer has a grudge against the Catholic Church, and wants to kill one of its clergy in order to make a statement; but he wants to kill a good priest, not an evil one, and has chosen Lavelle. We do not know the person's identity, at least to begin with; but Lavelle himself does.
For the rest of the film, Lavelle tries to go about his usual business, while he wrestles with the question of how to react to this extraordinary threat. He counsels people with all the compassion and wisdom he can bring to bear, and receives a visit from a close family member. He meets a former pupil of his who became a serial killer and is now incarcerated for his crimes, and he struggles with what redemption or forgiveness might mean for such a person.
Lavelle's parish is a severely eccentric place, and its residents bring a much-needed dose of humour. Outstanding are M Emmet Walsh as a frail, irascible American writer; Dylan Moran as a self-hating financier; and David Wilmot as Lavelle's rather foolish housemate and fellow priest. An arrogant doctor played by Aiden Gillen has a more than passing resemblance to his character Littlefinger in Game of Thrones.
In these everyday interactions, we see that at best, people regard Lavelle as well-meaning but unimportant. At worst, they look at the church he represents with open contempt and hatred, and they have good reasons for doing so. The Catholic Church's vile response to child abuse within its ranks is repeatedly referenced, and so is its impotence in the face of Ireland's financial crisis and recession.
Overshadowing Lavelle's every action and conversation is the threat of death. In part, this is a study of how a man might live for a week if he knew it was likely to be his last. He discusses the matter with his bishop, but there are more drastic actions open to him. He could go to the police, flee the country, or choose to meet violence with violence.
There is another option, which seems to have a powerful attraction for Lavelle. He could go willingly to face his would-be executioner, and either talk him out of it or be killed. In a real and literal sense, Lavelle contemplates becoming a Christian martyr. Calvary itself is the name of the hill where Jesus was crucified. The whole concept of martyrdom seems unreal and anachronistic; but Gleeson convinces us that for his character at least, it is very real indeed.
Calvary offers no glib answers, but it succeeds in raising questions of faith and meaning in the context of a magnificent black comedy. It doesn't always get the balance right; in particular, the segment with the imprisoned serial killer felt heavy-handed. But even in the more unbelievable scenes, the powerful screen presence of Brendan Gleeson keeps the film grounded.
Calvary is both a remarkable achievement and seriously funny.