A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Calvary is one of those quiet films that just happens to sneak up on you and deserves far more attention than it actually gets. A beautiful gem of an indie, the film is absolute perfection until the final act, when it falters a bit in its narrative. In spite of that noticeable stumble, Calvary is one of the year’s best films in how calmly and subtly it tackles one of the most controversial subjects to even talk about. Sexual abuse by Catholic priests isn’t necessarily groundbreaking news, but how little is actually done about it is. In a country like Ireland, where the Catholic religion has inherently become a part of the national culture, that conversation becomes even more fracturing. To make a film about this issue, like any other controversial hot button topic perhaps, is a difficult and tricky thing to do. Luckily John Michael McDonagh manages to tackle the subject with such sincerity that it’s simply astonishing. There’s a consistent degree of maturity throughout the film and it’s evident that the very last thing that McDonagh wants to do is make a caricature of this truly heinous quandary.
The beginning in and of itself is a true shocker for those are perhaps accustomed to more cinematically standard opening sequences. The film opens up in a confessional, the framing of it balancing the claustrophobia of such a space with the vast openness above it. A man quietly begins his confession – he will murder Father James the following Sunday. It’s a shocking beginning, setting the stage for a ticking time bomb scenario that carries a significant amount of suspense going forward. Even here, McDonagh twists the story in a fascinating direction. He’s not going to commit the murder because Father James was involved with the abuse in any way, quite the opposite, in fact. Father James, as is quickly established, has a significant reputation and the murder of a respected priest over a reviled one would shake up the status quo much further. From the very beginning it’s a unique narrative thrust yet McDonagh manages to imbue the following sequences with a mundaneness that is somehow more terrifying than a straight up revenge thriller. He instead focuses on the character of Father Jams, his angels and his demons and how he is as an everyday man of the church. It’s a smart narrative choice as the doomsday death looms nearer and nearer.
The clear winner in Calvary is the script by McDonagh. Narratively astute, intelligent, and aware, the film almost never falls to conventional methodologies when telling its story. The film, to its immense credit, is remarkably hilarious considering its subject matter. Too often, films that tackle serious subjects or any subject at all really, often find themselves falling into narrative tropes where they take themselves far too seriously (ahem, Les Misérables, Snow White & the Huntsman, et cetera…). At a certain point, you certainly can tune out when films forget that levity is a significant human trait, more so than ever during moments of crisis. Calvary understands that intimately and it’s all the stronger for it, dropping moments of germane hilarity at moments when the film can become too heavy. The film is buoyed by Larry Smith’s astounding cinematography, which manages to capture the essence of the Irish landscape to great effect. Performance-wise, this film belongs to Brendan Gleesan, whose portrayal of Father James is one of the most complex and brilliant performances of the year, embodying the kindness, melancholia, and frustration of one man seamlessly. The supporting cast is uniformly brilliant, with Kelly Reilly as the standout.
Calvary nevertheless isn’t perfect, a small plot snafu towards the end oddly taking you out of the film in an unusually jarring fashion. It’s a tiny quibble overall that manages not to mar the entire experience of the film. Calvary, in all of its cynicism, humor, and utter darkness at times, is a quiet reflection upon crime and punishment on a topic that rarely is given the spotlight. Ignorance can be bliss, but it is a fairly dangerous bliss to remain within. Sexual abuse of children by clergy is something that is well-known to the global populace and by no means is it something revelatory at this juncture in time. Yet, more often than not, it is surprisingly treated as such. Perhaps we simply don’t want to acknowledge that reality while we desperately search for answers. But until we acknowledge the widespread abuse within the system and how the central authorities cover it up instead of actively trying to do something about it, there is no solving the problem. There is only the pain and trauma that never goes away but instead spreads like a horrifying poison destined to consume everything within its sights.
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: John Michael McDonagh
Produced by: Chris Clark, Flora Fernandez-Marengo, James Flynn
Written by: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Domhnall Gleeson, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach de Bankolé
Music: Patrick Cassidy
Cinematography: Larry Smith
Editing: Chris Gill
Production Company: Reprisal Films, Octagon Films, Protagonist Pictures
Distributor: Entertainment One (UK), Fox Searchlight Pictures (US)
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Dates: 19 January 2014 (Sundance), 11 April 2014 (United Kingdom), 1 August 2014 (United States)
Image Courtesy: The Guardian UK