John Michael McDonagh’s “Calvary” has a corker of an opening scene. A kindly village priest (Brendan Gleeson) is in the confession box, and a parishioner tells how he was sexual abused by a priest as a boy. The man then vows to kill the kindly priest in one week as revenge.
But if you are expecting “Calvary” to be a wicked crime comedy in the vein of McDonagh’s previous collaboration with Gleeson, “The Guard,” think again. “Calvary” is many shades darker, a nearly pitiless examination of the human condition and the seeming futility of faith. There are laughs, especially in the first half of the film, but they tend to stick in your throat as the film goes deeper and darker.
Gleeson attempts to figure out who the murderous member of his flock is, and learns that everyone is a possible suspect. Their faith rattled by everything from personal tragedy to the clergy abuse scandals, everyone in town seems to be either questioning their faith, or openly mocking the priest for his. McDonagh said the mood reflects a national uprising against the Catholic church in Ireland in the wake of scandal – even his elderly father has stopped going to Mass.
Rather than try to save his life, the priest finds himself trying to save his faith in the wake of such scorn. Gleeson is magnificent here, falling farther and farther into despair as one parishioner after another turns their back on him. If you know what Calvary refers to in the Bible, you know the parallel McDonagh is going for here.
“Calvary” is at times brutal to watch, not so much for its onscreen violence (although there is some) but its view of humanity as essentially selfish creatures looking for a higher power to blame for their misery, and one good man among them who seems powerless to change their minds. The film ends with the faintest glimmer of hope, but even that hope comes wrapped in despair, suggesting that we’re each all we have to rely on. Because the man upstairs isn’t answering our calls.
I initially felt a certain sense of detachment upon watching “Calvary” – it’s just so bleak, and such a turn from “The Guard.” But the more I sit with it, allowing its hopelessness to seep into my bones, the more I have to admire it.