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Non-Review Review: Calvary

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2014.

Calvary takes itself just a little bit too seriously for its own good. John McDonagh’s second feature film has a sterling cast, a witty sense of humour and some absolutely breathtaking cinematography; but there’s a sense that it’s trying too hard to say something meaningful and profound. Unlike the biting social satire of The Guard, which was buried skilfully beneath a charming screenplay and lightness of touch, Calvary has difficulty figuring out what it wants to be at any given moment in time.

Is it a scathing examination of rural Irish life? An exploration of guilt and integrity, sin and virtue? A meditation on the role that the church has played and has yet to play in Irish life? A critique of “detachment” as a default mode of being? The movie frequently transitions between hilariously exaggerated philosophical exchanges and attempts at more grounded human interactions, often missing a step in between.

Calvary is still a rather clever and powerful piece of Irish cinema, featuring a phenomenal Irish cast and trying to deal with important social issues; it just feels a little to heavy-handed and self-important in its attempts to do so.

Burning down the house...

Burning down the house…

At its heart, Calvary seems to be a scathing critique of cynicism. The lead character, Father James, spends most of the movie being appalled by the hypocrisy and cynicism of those around him, trying his best to maintain a community that really seems to have little interest in being held together. The parish priest, Father James spends his week visiting with his parishioners, including a wealthy out-of-towner and a reclusive American novelist. He plays the role of marriage counselor and psycho-therapist.

In many respects, you could argue that McDonagh has framed Calvary as a more dramatic or darkly comic version of cult Irish priest comedy Father Ted. Both are stories about cynical men consigned to dead-end parishes, utterly ineffective at holding the community together and completely out-of-touch with the flock he has been tasked to guide. (Although, to be fair, Father James seems more genuine and sincere – and well-meaning – than Ted Crilly.) There’s even a local couple involved in domestic violence and a bumbling idiotic partner in the mix.

Who is gunning for Father James...

Who is gunning for Father James?

A suitably pithy comparison would be “Father Ted by way of Quentin Tarantino”, given the movie’s hyper-reality, Western themes and penchant for big dramatic moments. However, that feels just a little disingenuous. Calvary has important and well-considered things to say about modern Irish society – and maybe that’s part of the problem here. Calvary spends a significant portion of its runtime being cynical and bitter and wry, which makes the earnestness feel a little off-tone.

The movie trades in larger-than-life quirky supporting characters, lending the story the feel of a broadly-drawn dark comedy. This makes it quite difficult to it seriously when it tries to wade into issues like the culpability and responsibility of the Catholic Church. This dissonance is undoubtedly intentional (“is that meant to be irony?” one character responds to Father James’ deadpan self-aware reaction to the movie’s harrowing opening line), but it’s also distracting.

Everything goes up in smoke...

Everything goes up in smoke…

The world occupied by Father James feels just as unreal as the world occupied by Gerry Boyle in The Guard. In The Guard, that was the point. Here, it feels somewhat ill-judged. From the opening scene, the audience is all but expecting a scene where Father James is accused of being a paedophile. Sure enough, it eventually arrives, and it’s just as clumsy and ham-fisted as you might expect.

More than that, though, it’s entirely predictable and a little boring. From the moment that Father James strikes up a conversation with a young girl, we’re expecting the scene’s climax – a climax that imagines in just about the most exaggerated and over-the-top way possible. There’s even a speeding car thrown into the mix, along with a lot of shouting. There are insightful and nuanced ways to look at the relationship the Catholic Church has with children, but this is most awkward and clumsy manner imaginable.

Drinking it in...

Drinking it in…

Treating The Guard‘s guns-blazing one-man war against drug-smuggling on the West Coast of Ireland as a live-action cartoon is a playful skewering of American (and specifically) Western storytelling clichés. Doing the same with child sex abuse in Ireland feels a little tone-deaf. It’s not that McDonagh doesn’t have important things to say, it’s that Calvary struggles with how to say them. It casts a pretty significant shadow over what is otherwise a well-constructed film.

McDonagh has assembled a pretty fantastic cast and put most of them into roles that are defined quickly and efficiently. Like The Guard, McDonagh leans heavily on broad definition. While rural Ireland is populated with individuals that would be affectionately described as “characters”, the density of character quirks on display here lends the much a wonderfully surreality. This isn’t rural Ireland, it’s the version of rural Ireland that exists in stories related in pubs or over pints or in front of a warm fire.

A dog's life...

A dog’s life…

For example, one sequence features Father James visiting a former pupil in prison. It turns out that his former pupil has become a cannibalistic serial killer. (He even jokes that human flesh tastes like “pheasant”, with a “game-y” taste to it.) Given that the Irish State has only convicted two serial killers since its foundation, the casual off-handed-ness of the scene feels just a little over-the-top with the more weighty subject matter at play.

Of course, it doesn’t matter. It’s really just an excuse to give the audience a nice scene between Brendan and Domhnall Gleeson, with the latter playing a caged sociopath who serves to raise some of the script’s heavy theological questions. A lot of Calvary works more on the strength of watching the cast play off one another than on the bigger ideas at play within the story. The cast is phenomenal – with Chris O’Dowd, Dylan Moran and Aidan Gillen standing out among a bevy of talented Irish supporting performers.

At the same time, this is very much Brendan Gleeson’s film, and it’s Gleeson who carries the film. Gleeson remains one of the strongest Irish actors currently working, and his portrayal of Father James is a wonderfully nuanced piece of character work that demonstrates how he has become one of the country’s most convincing leading men. Father James is a character who could easily seem arrogant or aloof in lesser hands, spending a significant portion of the movie cynically responding to the hypocrisy surrounding him as a man “a little too sharp for this parish.”

He shouldn't let this altar his plans...

He shouldn’t let this altar his plans…

Instead, Gleeson renders Father James as a wonderfully complex central character, a nuanced and complicated individual who is a lot more fully-formed than the other rural residents surrounding him. There’s something elegant and dignified in Gleeson’s portrayal, and he anchors McDonagh’s script in a way that grounds the film even while it struggles with issues of tone and content.

Larry Smith’s cinematography is absolutely beautiful. Sligo has never looked better  than it does here, with local mountains and beaches rendered breathtakingly. Similarly, Patrick Cassidy’s score is atmospheric and evocative, capturing the raw beauty of the Irish countryside. Discussing the film, McDonagh has confessed that he set the film in Sligo as a tribute to his mother, after setting The Guard in Galway as a tribute to his father. As such, Calvary feels like a cinematic tribute to that Western county.

Calvary has some very serious problems reconciling its hyper-real elements with a desire to say something profound and meaningful about modern Ireland, but it’s still an interesting film. In a way, it reflects its lead character – a very thoughtful, very well-intentioned, but also somewhat flawed piece of work.

All audience members are asked to rank films in the festival from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, here is my score: 3

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