Friday, August 8, 2014

A priest and his fallen flock

If one were to judge only by the movie Calvary, it would be possible to proclaim Ireland the unhappiest place on Earth.

Starring Brendan Gleeson and directed by John Michael McDonagh, Calvary upsets every known cliche about the irresistible charms of small Irish villages.

Calvary has been referred to as a mixture of dark comedy dialogue, whodunit tropes and serious ruminations about the decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

I suppose all those things are true, but Calvary is also a probing look at how a society grapples with its sins. Whether you buy into the movie's ideas about sacrifice and forgiveness or not, you'll be forced to admit that Calvary is stern stuff, immersing us in a microcosmic world of cynicism, violence and cruelty.

The story centers on Gleeson's Father James, a man who became a priest after his wife died. Father James has a grown daughter (Kelly Reilly), who visits him from Dublin after a suicide attempt. Her wrists still are bandaged.

Gleeson gives a masterful performance as a priest who seems as rooted in the world as any of his parishioners. Bearded and bulky, Gleeson suggests struggles that are deep and abiding.

Flawed as he is, Father James might be the perfect man to tend to a flock that's deeply troubled and seems to have little or no respect for the church.

Chris O'Dowd plays a butcher whose wife (Orla O'Rourke) is having an affair with an African mechanic (Isaach De Bankole). O'Dowd's character doesn't seem to care.

The town's top cop (Gary Lydon) dabbles in homosexual sex with an obnoxious male prostitute (Owen Sharpe). The town's richest resident (Dylan Moran) made his fortune with unscrupulous dealings, and now regards everything in life as meaningless.

A smirking local doctor (Aidan Gillen) seems driven by his own death wish: He's constantly smoking.

A sick and aging American writer (M.Emmet Walsh) is living his final days in Ireland. He wants Father James to help him procure a gun so that he can end his life before his suffering peaks.

Running through all of this is the threat that opens the movie: During a session in the confessional, an unseen man tells Father James that he plans to kill him.

A victim of sexual abuse at the hands of a priest ("I was seven years old when I first tasted semen"), the man says that he wants to balance the scales of justice by killing a good priest.

The priest who abused the man is long dead, but by some twisted logic, the would-be perpetrator has come to believe that he can set the world right by murdering an innocent man.

The story unfolds during the course of a week as Father James moves about his community, and we try to guess who wants to kill him.

It quickly becomes apparent that McDonagh, who previously worked with Gleeson on The Guard (2011) and In Bruges (2008), has more than mystery in mind. In some ways, it doesn't matter who has it in for Father James. What matters is McDonagh's depiction of a disillusioned, fallen world in which only one character seems genuinely touched by faith.

Marie Josee-Croze plays the wife of a man killed in an auto accident while passing through town. She qualifies as the most spiritual person in a story full men and women stuck in the mud of their own rancid lives.

The main questions that McDonagh raises may go something like this: What's left when the major upholders of morality -- in this case the church -- prove corrupt? How do people function in a world bereft of kindness and beset by indifference when they've lost all belief in their own effectuality?

One presumes that the town in which the movie takes place is meant to be seen as a hothouse where big issues can grow. When you step back from the movie, you may decide that its concerns are as conceptional as they are literal, an exploration of characters and events that McDonagh wants us to view metaphorically.

The movie's most haunting scene takes place in jail. Father James visits a young man who raped, killed and cannibalized several girls. The young man -- played by Gleeson's son Domhnall Gleeson -- fantasizes about meeting his victims in heaven where he expects to find a beautiful moment of reconciliation.

When he describes his imagined redemption, the young man's face seems nearly beatific. The moment represents a mixture of sickness and aspiration that you won't soon forget. Like the movie itself, it leaves you shaken to the core.

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