Calvary was the biblical site, outside Jerusalem, where Christ was crucified. The story goes that two thieves were crucified beside him, and that one’s repentance and faith (and the other’s lack thereof) at the moment of death determined their salvation.
We are reminded, in the opening moments of Calvary, a heavy-duty film starring Brendan Gleeson as an Irish priest with a troubled flock, which opens at the Cedar Lee on Friday, of that particular inspiration: Do not despair, advises a St. Augustine quote on the screen, one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.
The good-natured widower-turned-priest Father James (Gleeson) is the obvious Jesus figure here. Calvary opens in the heightened chiaroscuro of a confessional’s interior, where Father James is told by an unseen confessor that he will be killed in one week’s time. Father James’ death, the confessor says, is necessary because he is a good priest, and he must die for the sins of the bad priests. The confessor asks not for absolution, but reveals that he was sexually abused as a young boy.
Father James, then, basically goes about his pastoral duties, burdened by his impending doom while tending to the needs of his confused and often hostile parishioners, portrayed by an all-star Irish cast:
Chris O’Dowd is the butcher, Jack, who knocks around his wife for stepping out with an African immigrant. Game of Thrones’ Aiden Gillen is the atheist doctor, Frank, who gets a sadistic kick out of questioning the good priest’s faith. Harry Potter’s Domhnall Gleeson (Brendan’s son), is the serial killer imprisoned for life who, in his single powerful scene, wonders why God made him the way he is. Shaun of the Dead’s Dylan Moran is the acerbically nihilistic Mr. Fitzgerald, a wealthy businessmen whose family has left him and whose life now has no meaning. And Sherlock Holmes’ Kelly Reilly is Fiona, Father James’ daughter (from before he was ordained) who has recently attempted suicide and visits her father to recoup her sanity.
As the week and the film progresses, the tension and rising action mimic that of a good mystery novel — Who’s the killer? Who’s the killer??? — but does occasionally drift between realism and allegory. You’ll be scratching your head trying to figure out, for example, what exactly the cartoonish American gay prostitute represents?
In fact, despite some startlingly effective cinematography — d.p. Larry Smith shows the bucolic countryside we’d expect, but also the tumultuous (and almost violent) landscape of Ireland, complete with jagged coastlines and dangerous waves — Calvary does seem to have the ingredients of a really successful stage play: forceful, intimate individual scenes, a memorable and manageable cast of characters, little in the way of special effects, and massive moral turbulence throughout.