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Film review: ‘Calvary,’ the Catholic Church in the cross-hairs

"Calvary" turns out to be a very black comedy about the state of the Catholic Church and the human condition in microcosm.

The writer/director of “Calvary,’”John Michael McDonagh, is an English-born lapsed Irish Catholic, who is still deeply entwined with his religious roots. His film is set in a small town in the rocky, stunningly beautiful west coast of Ireland. It opens sensationally with a priest, Father James (a grizzled, emotionally powerful Brendan Gleesonbeing threatened in the darkness of the confession box by a man who claims he was raped as an alter boy, and says that within a week he will kill the priest (an innocent man ), just because he is a representative of the church.

The priest is a good and compassionate man. He’s also a man of genuine faith and great sympathy living at a time where the Catholic Church, given its own sexual abuse scandals and its accompanying cover-ups, has lost people’s trust and aroused their contempt and even fear. One scene vividly captures that fact. Father James meets a young girl on the road, and makes pleasant small talk with her, but her father suddenly drives up and chastises her for talking to the priest. A close-up of a devastated-looking Father James tells us that he remembers a time when a priest was esteemed and not seen as a predator to be fearful of.

“Calvary” turns out to be much less a mystery film about discovering the-would-be-murderer than a very black comedy about the state of the Church and the human condition in microcosm. Despite the murder threat Father James goes on his daily rounds visiting villagers, who for the most part are suicidal, cynical, or living in utter despair, or a combination of all three. Almost none of them find the Church able to console them, and in fact, most have little use for it.

The villagers include a manic, wife-beating butcher (Chris O’Dowd), and his wanton, self-destructive wife, a sullen African garage mechanic, who is having an affair with her(Isaach De Bankole), a demonic doctor (Aiden Gillen), and an alcoholic, misanthropic millionaire (Dylan Moran). Even the priest’s daughter — he had been married in another life — who is visiting from Dublin, is a depressive, who has tried to commit suicide, though these scenes feel mawkish and undeveloped.

Some of the actors are very convincing, but the film heavy-handedly stacks the deck — making almost every one of Father James’ encounters with the villagers a descent into a character’s personal hell. There is also a concluding scene that seems tacked on and sentimental where the priest’s daughter carries on his legacy and offers forgiveness to a mass killer.

Father James offers them no moral sermons — he just tries to provide counsel and understanding. He is a truly religious man who serves a Church whose prime interest is preserving itself and its perks, and that carries little sense of genuine spirituality or concern for its congregants.

Gleeson, as an extremely human and flawed Father James (he’s an alcoholic and was a distant father), dominates the film with his riveting performance, and gives it soul and substance.

Calvary (Rated R) is showing at the Triplex Theatre in Great Barrington (click link for showtimes).

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