The opening line in Calvary – writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s follow up to his superb black comedy The Guard – is quite possibly one of the most immediately arresting and shocking in the history of cinema. It is part of a confession to an Irish Catholic priest wherein the individual in question confides that they were sexually abused by another long dead priest, and that they intend to kill him, Father James Lavelle, as a representative of the Catholic Church in revenge.
Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is a good priest who genuinely cares for his eclectic and often eccentric parishioners. Respecting the confidentiality of the confessional he refuses to reveal which of them has threatened him, and instead goes about his duties regardless. What follows contains a similar black humour to The Guard, but this is a darker and ultimately superior work.
Gleeson is absolutely superb in the lead, giving a tour-de-force as a man of deep integrity, conviction, but inevitable deep flaws – alcohol for one. Sometimes his advice to parishioners is a little odd. Advising a sexually frustrated young man to try pornography in a desperate attempt to stop him joining the army is hardly likely to win him any points with his bishop. At other times however, he is extremely wise; particularly when the candle of his faith refuses to be snuffed out in the face of great testing, and in his absolute belief in forgiveness.
The supporting cast – which includes Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aiden Gillen and Gleeson’s own son Domhnall – are excellent too. At first there is something of a guessing game on the part of the audience trying to figure out exactly which of these individuals is threatening Lavelle’s life. But this who-might-do-it aspect of the plot ultimately lurks more in the background, with character study elements coming to the fore, particularly in Lavelle’s relationship with his suicidal daughter (Kelly Reilly). It’s also worth mentioning that the film makes highly evocative use of locations, courtesy of cinematographer Larry Smith.
I should add a warning that the film contains very strong language, and some brief but shocking violence. But none of this is out of context. Indeed, I would argue it is essential to the power of the story. Calvary is an entertaining film with some well-judged dark comedy, but it has serious things to say about faith and forgiveness, not to mention the appalling damage done to those who have been sexually abused by Catholic priests. It is powerful, thought provoking, and I will be surprised if this doesn’t end up on my list of the ten best films of the year.