The Gospel According to John Michael McDonagh

Brendan Gleeson in CALVARY

Brendan Gleeson in CALVARY

Movie  l  Calvary   l  MA 15+

Calvary is a film that takes a long, hard look at the clerical sex abuse scandals that have increasingly dominated Irish newspaper headlines since the mid-90’s. Director John Michael McDonagh (The Guard)  eschews any attempt at realism though, with the resulting film an unusual blend of theatrical speeches, surreal black humour and intense emotion.

Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is confronted in the confessional by an unseen victim who describes years of sexual abuse at the hands of a now deceased priest. Lavelle’s offer of therapy is brusquely rejected. Instead the speaker declares that he will kill him in a week’s time, because the death of a ‘good priest’ might actually cause people to recognise the Church’s responsibility for the abuse.

At first Calvary appears to be a murder mystery, but it soon becomes clear Lavelle knows exactly who the man in the confessional was. In fact he refuses to reveal the man’s identity to his bishop (satirical comedian David McSavage), despite the risk to his own life. The conceit of a mystery though allows us to meet the other members of the small Sligo community Lavelle serves. Tacit acknowledgement of his authority as a clergyman is soon replaced by open contempt from the majority of the townsfolk.

Housewife Veronica Brennan (Orla O’Rourke) is openly cheating on her butcher husband Jack (The IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd) who, to Lavelle’s surprise, is entirely content with the arrangement. A disgraced banker (Dylan Moran) is introduced blithely riding around on horseback like an Anglo-Irish aristocrat from the 19th century. An elderly American writer (M. Emmet Walsh) requests Lavelle’s assistance in taking his own life. Atheist doctor Frank Harte (Game of Throne’s Aiden Gillen) mocks the quick-to-anger priest at every opportunity. A prisoner jailed for cannibalism (Domhnall Gleeson) wistfully imagines being reunited with his victims in heaven.

The cast act more like caricatures than characters – but then we are seeing them through Lavelle’s eyes, who can only see the sin and not the sinner. Briefly over the credits we are given some insight into who these men and women really are, but for the majority of the film an increasing sense of isolation and claustrophobia is focused on Gleeson’s priest.

Perhaps this would have been more successful as a stage-play, where the precedent of characters announcing their motivations was set all the way back in Ancient Greek drama. McDonagh has deliberately set about creating an unreal tone, that calls attention to the artificiality of film as a storytelling medium. Lavelle says the man threatening him wants to start a conversation about abuse. The film itself in turn delivers oratory instead of dialogue in a forced manner, with the implication that the Irish will never speak out on the crimes committed against the most innocent.

Lavelle, in a modern update of the Cruxifixion, undertakes his own inverted stations of the cross, enduring the abuse of his community. A moment of doubt in the Garden of Gethsemane becomes a booze-induced rage against the town. When he pleads for forgiveness it is not for the people who have turned on him, but on behalf of his own religious order for not doing more to protect those in their charge.

This is an uncomfortable and not entirely successful piece of narrative cinema, which makes the bitter pill all the harder to swallow.

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