Remember those old-fashioned, sentimental movies about life in an Irish village (John Ford’s The Quiet Man comes immediately to mind), where the gabby, kind-hearted Roman Catholic priest — usually played by Barry Fitzgerald or Arthur Shields — would bumble around getting into everybody’s business, but nonetheless prove that he always knew best? Well, you can forget about all that.
John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary begins with Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson, in top form) in the confessional with an unknown man who is there not to confess but to condemn. In a wavering voice, the man quickly recounts a graphic list of sex crimes committed against him by priests, then issues a threat to the astonished clergyman: “I’m going to kill you.” It puts a peculiar spin on the father’s day, to say the least. But that’s only the opening shot in McDonagh’s exceptionally well-written and bracingly acted drama — a story as black as the priest’s cassock. As Lavelle makes the rounds of his tiny community in County Sligo, it’s obvious that nearly all his parishioners harbor at least a simmering contempt for him, and in one case, a murderous hatred.
Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), a supercilious country squire who drinks too much, despises the priest almost as much as he does himself. Jack Brennan, the butcher (Chris O’Dowd) is upset that his wife Veronica (Orla O’Rourke) is openly having a sexual fling with the town’s African auto mechanic, Simon (Isaach De Bankolé) — naturally, they all take out their frustrations on Lavelle. Inspector Stanton of the local police (Gary Lydon) and his wisecracking leather-boy sidekick Leo (Owen Sharpe) ridicule him as well. Dr. Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen), the atheist at the hospital morgue, and Brendan Lynch the bartender (Pat Shortt) also merrily contribute to the surly hostility. Up and down the line, McDonagh’s dialogue crackles with misgivings. Seems people expect the worst of priests nowadays, and the circumspect Lavelle has to suffer for the sins of his churchly brothers, even though he seemingly wouldn’t harm a fly. Meanwhile the prissy bishop (David McSavage), munching tea biscuits in his mansion, doesn’t want to know about the murder threat, or anything else.
Virtually the only character who doesn’t have it in for Lavelle is his visiting red-haired daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly). The daughter of a priest? Fiona was born to Lavelle and his late wife some years before he entered the priesthood, and now she’s practically his sole source of human warmth — along with a nameless old writer who lives in a shack (M. Emmet Walsh), to whom the charitable father brings groceries and whiskey. As the villagers heap abuse on Lavelle, we can’t help thinking back to some of the burly Gleeson’s previous roles in such films as In Bruges, The General, Gangs of New York, and McDonagh’s 2011 police comedy The Guard. In those movies, anyone who looked cross-eyed at a Gleeson character would get his nose broken — but Father Lavelle is a different breed, in a different time.
Writer-director John Michael McDonagh shares a number of tics, mannerisms, and spasms of bloodlust with his playwright-filmmaker brother Martin. Their points of view rely on violence, misanthropy, and sardonic humor to sketch in the details of their characters’ lives. Father Lavelle is probably the sharpest character either of the McDonaghs has created — a strong, steadfast man who struggles mightily to hold his temper against a sea of temptations. He turns the other cheek. The title, Calvary, is enough to remind the religiously inclined that Lavelle’s restraint and basic gentleness bear a relation to the sufferings of Jesus Christ. But for those of us who confine our metaphors to the 21st century, the ordeals of Lavelle are an object lesson in humility. Tough as it is, Calvary is food for the soul.