“Going My Way” and “Bless Me Father.” “Nothing Sacred” and “Mass Appeal.” “Doubt” and “Broken Vows.” The “Father Dowling Mysteries” and “Father Brown” series.
Of all the movies and television programs about Catholic clergymen, the new Irish feature film “Calvary” is perhaps most remindful of Alfred Hitchcock’s “I Confess.” That 1953 thriller starred Montgomery Clift as a cleric who, having heard a killer’s confession and found himself accused of the crime, faced one spectacular dilemma. Would Clift’s Fr. Logan remain faithful to the seal of confession or identify his penitent to the police to clear himself?
“Calvary” – whose Irish countryside setting may call to mind for some viewers the circa 2000 TV series “Ballykissangel” and its fictional Fr. Clifford – is a 100-minute, R-rated drama. Its storyline encompasses a week in the life of parish priest, James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson in a virtuoso performance).
“‘I wanted to make a film about a good priest,’” writer-director John Michael McDonagh has been quoted as saying.
Fr. James is as unorthodox as he is good. A bearded bear of a man with a bear of dog, Fr. James is a parent and widower who can match his fellow townsmen drink for drink at the pub and talk to them in their own, sometimes profane, language.
“Yes, I am,” he replies when told he is judgmental, “but I try not to be.”
Fr. James drives a red convertible, his only visible concession to materialism, and makes surprising statements regarding romance and military service. In one sequence, the big man even becomes a pistol-packin’ padre.
“You’re just a little too sharp for this parish,” one of his flock tells him.
If this priest turns out to be an admirable example of his profession, some of his colleagues do not. Fr. Leary (David Wilmot), with whom James works and shares a rectory, is a gossipy naif who openly expresses his prejudices.
“You have no integrity,” Fr. James barks at Fr. Leary, while Fr. James’ visiting adult daughter (Kelly Reilly) sarcastically calls the latter “the future of the priesthood.”
The diocesan bishop (David McSavage), impeccably decked out in full episcopal regalia, pays almost more attention to his flower garden and hearty breakfast when Fr. James comes to confer. As the pair walks together, commanding the camera, a viewer might take them for symbols of what’s right and what’s wrong with the church.
Unseen abusive clergymen constitute a motif in the movie – spoken of by victims and by a police official thwarted by church authorities when he attempted to exact justice – as well as the film’s foundation.
Judging from several “Calvary” scenes, the Irish church lags behind its American counterpart liturgically. Fr. James is seldom seen without his cassock, communicants never take the host in their hands and the sacrament of reconciliation transpires anonymously in a confessional, rather than in a reconciliation room offering a face-to-face option.
“Calvary,” in fact, opens in a confessional. From behind the screen a man tells Fr. James of being sexually abused for five years as a boy, the victim of a priest now dead.
“I don’t know what to say to you,” a compassionate-appearing Fr. James responds, inviting the victim to speak further.
He does, shockingly telling the priest he intends to kill him in one week – “enough time to put your house in order.” Murdering a good priest for the sins of a bad one, in the mind of the penitent, will strike a formidable blow to the church.
Fr. James reports the threat to the less-than-compassionate bishop, who determines that, since sins were not confessed and absolution not given, “the inviolability of the sacred seal does not apply.”
The priest, however, insists he is unaware of the would-be killer’s identity. He tells no one else of the threat – not the police, not Fr. Leary, not daughter Fiona vacationing from London.
The week progresses with Fr. James praying in and out of church, bantering with youngsters, visiting with troubled adult congregants, counseling a notorious prisoner, administering the last rites to a dying accident victim and then commiserating with the individual’s faith-filled widow. Such scenes are interestingly supplemented at movie’s end by a series of wordless shots indicating results of the priest’s pastoral efforts.
The week offers bonding time for Fr. James and Fiona, who tells him she felt she’d lost a second parent when he entered the seminary in the aftermath of her mother’s passing.
The film’s title, naming the hill on which Christ was crucified, perhaps suggests it does; but whether “Calvary” also climaxes in tragedy, in the carrying out of the confessional death threat, will not be revealed here.
Gleeson’s acting has already been applauded; it should be noted that McDonagh has elicited excellent performances as well from his supporting cast. The use of a Roger Whittaker song, “New World in the Morning,” proves pleasantly surprising and the script is impressive for lines such as Fr. James’ “No one is a lost cause” and “I think there’s too much talk about sins and not enough about virtues.”
An intriguing supplementary quote, attributed to St. Augustine, appears in writing before the opening credits:
Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved.
Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.