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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Calvary

Or: Redemption unreached


On Sunday, Father James (Brendan Gleeson), Shepherd of a small Irish town, is informed via confessional that one of his parishioners intends to kill him. “Well that’s a startling opening.” remarks the priest, dryly (the only really well landed Ironic joke of 101 minutes of poorly fetched ironical jokes). He is to die for the sins of a pederast and murderous priest long since dead. After all, reasons the would-be murder killing a good priest, one who’s done nothing wrong, will be a greater revenge against the whole Catholic church. James is given a week to set his House in Order, care for his traumatized daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) who has come at the worst possible time, and try to tend the spiritual needs of his flock who’s faith died long ago (apparently in a suicide pact with their manners).


Though it certainly does possess moments of grace and grief (and some stunning shots of the fabled “40 shades of green” of the land and the “12 shads of grey” for the sea), and containing one of Gleeson’s best performances, Calvary is a sad and sorry affair, an affliction best to be avoided or at least insulated against. The message of the film is one of forgiveness and hope, that no matter what the crime you have done, or have done to you, there is redemption (of various degrees: murder, rape, and cannibalism are a bit hard to swing) to be had, but the film spends such time on the bad behavior of its many, many na’er do wells that the desire to forgive is easily smothered. Nobody has a right to be that stupid, or that cruel. That the majority of the cast are one-trick hacks does nothing to improve matters. Indeed most of the parish (as both written and performed) are carried right past “troubled”, through “villainous”, and over “irredeemable”, to slow down at “just annoying”, and finally grounding on the sand bar of “dull”.


The shots, like the scenery, are simple and gorgeous in their simplicity, but often succumb to metaphors sluggish and heavy as a ten pound hammer (Why hello Stigmata I see you there. Unstoppable Giant Wave of Doom, I see you too. How’s it been White Room of Despair? Naked Thinker! ‘Sup). And the script. Oy. John Michael McDonagh can write a mean philosophical discourse, (I’m talking like Tennessee Williams, good) but apparently has delusions of aping that more successful McDonagh, Martin. His focus on weaponry, ironical gallows humor, and tasteless violence both on screen and in narrative (“why did you tell me that story?” growls Father James after one particularly disturbing and thoynoish anecdote, “No reason.” sniggers the na’re do well), ape after the other Gleeson epic, In Bruge, but leave us without a coherent thread of narrative, or a deeper aspect of character, and leaves us without even the satisfaction of offing the scunners, as Martin would have. (“Bitter, much?” you ask, dear reader? Why yes, yes I am.)


Besides its touching philosophic discussion and examination of human struggles (free from the tint of pro-church or anti-church) all of which account for about 30 minutes of the 101, the only redeeming piece of this film on redemption is Gleeson himself.


Playing neither plaster-saint nor old Irish bugger, Father James is a masterpiece of restrained frustration, well-savored sorrow, and warm good humor. Gleeson plays the good father with the characters greatest virtue, compassion. His handling of his troubled, distant daughter and a convicted killer he once schooled, truly show the actor’s depth of skill, and mastery that most valued skill in the craft: Sincerity. Had the film spent more time on Father James and his own struggles (a la, Colin Firth in A Single Man, one of my favorites, a truly peerless film) and less on splashing about in the mucky mires of village life, Calvary might have proven a heartbreaking examination of the human desire for redemption (and an exploration of the current troubles of the Church in Ireland, publicly reviled and too stagnant to make amends for past wrongs, and yet too worked into the fabric of society to excise). Instead of the dampening and irritating mess: a lumpy pot with a peerless gem, cracked and misshapen to hold anymore that a handful of the sweet water it was meant to contain.

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