The Catholic Church’s dark history of sexual abuse is a well-documented topic that, within the past twenty years, has become an identity-defining scandal , serving as a damning modern symbol of religious corruption. This has produced many works, both drama and documentary, which have come out in condemnation of such abuse and its subsequent cover ups. However, in his new film Calvary, John Michael McDonagh distances himself from such outright attacks on organised religion and attempts to address the issue within the context of a small village in rural Ireland. Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson), a good man who lives a modest life, has his life threatened whilst taking confession from a man who was abused by a priest at the age of seven and gives Lavelle one week to live. What follows is an emotional journey of self-reflection as Lavelle struggles to deal with the threat of impending death and its implications for his relationship with life and his identity.
Calvary’s cinematography cements it as a film truly engaged with its subject matter. It portrays the tightly knit insularity of rural village life exceptionally, with each scene feeling distinctly and occasionally uncomfortably intimate: the small rooms of its Irish pubs and modest homes filled with recognisable characters at all times. This serves to create a sense of a community and connectivity which, whilst allowing relationships to flourish with a level of closeness that does not exist in city life, breeds a fierce tension when conflict inevitably arises during Lavelle’s attempts to reconnect with his estranged and troubled daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly). When the film steps outside, vast rolling Irish landscapes nearly untouched by civilisation unravel before the camera, grounding Calvary in its exploration of Irish national identity, a theme which is subtly yet constantly present throughout the film through repeated reminders of the past: the scars of brutal religious and political conflict that still exist on the national consciousness.
However, the setting and cinematography are not the only things that root this film in Irishness. The cast, featuring the likes of Chris O’Dowd, Dylan Moran and, of course, Gleeson himself, is a definitive rogue’s gallery of prominent figures representing contemporary Irish cinema. Every cast member does an absolutely stellar job in their role, complemented by the excellent writing which creates a plethora of memorable and unique characters, each with their own distinctive story . No one has secrets in Calvary’s village and everyone trespasses on one another’s boundaries in some way or another.
In the centre of it all is Gleeson who shines in what is one of the most iconic performances of his career. The camera follows him closely throughout to capture every nuance of emotion, only ever pulling back to a respectful distance on occasion. His reserved world weariness fantastically captures the character’s battle with the implications of his impending death whilst struggling to keep in check long buried frustration and doubts that he burns to express. Gleeson’s performance resonates within the film’s writing and excellent score to imbue Calvary with a deeply honest sense of humanity. The full range of human emotions are explored here; humour, anger, sorrow and joy are all expressed and given equal value whilst every character struggles with death which looms over them.
Ultimately, this is what Calvary is about: people dealing with the unfathomable and inevitable reality of death and what it means to be alive. I find it hard to claim that Calvary set out with a specific goal or message in mind, but the emotional, complex portrayal of how people react to different manifestations of life and death had an indescribable beauty to it that left me with a feeling of catharsis that few films have. Whatever may be taken away from it, this film is an experience unlike any other.