Calvary was probably the best movie of 2014 that you did not see in a theater. I missed seeing it during its brief theatrical run in the States. If I had seen it when it was originally released, my list of the best films of 2014 would have been far different. Calvary is an amazing film that takes a serious and intelligent look at issues of faith, morality, guilt, and absolution. It is one of the best films about Catholicism that I’ve ever seen.
The film, which was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (who previously gave us The Guard), tells the story of an Irish priest, Father James (Brendan Gleeson). During confession, an unseen parishoner tells James about the horrific sexual abuse that he suffered as a child. The parishoner explains that the priest who abused him has since died so the parishoner plans to get his revenge on the Catholic Church by killing James. He tells James to meet him on the beach next Sunday. He also informs James that his death will mean more because James is a “good man.”
The rest of the film follows James over the course of what could be the last week of his life and we watch as James struggles to fulfill his priestly duties in a world that seems to be moving further and further away from the Church. While everyone seems to come to him with their problems and their questions, few people seem to share James’s faith and James is often left to wonder whether he’s doing any good at all.
For instance, when he confronts the local butcher (Chris O’Dowd) for beating his wife, the butcher refuses to admit that he did anything wrong. When he goes to prison and talks to a serial killer (Freddie Joyce) who wants forgiveness, James replies that he can’t be forgiven because he feels no guilt. The local millionaire (Dylan Moran) offers to donate money to the church but also confesses that he made his money through illegal means. A local doctor, a hedonistic, cocaine-snorting atheist played by Aiden Gillen, takes perverse pleasure in taunting James for caring about death. When James attempts to talk to a local girl, the girl’s father accuses him of being a pedophile. When the local church catches on fire, nobody in the village seems to care. And finally, one night, James returns home to discover that someone has murdered his beloved dog.
And yet, there are good moments as well. James prays with a woman (Marie-Josee Croze) who has just lost her husband. James gets chance to bond with his emotionally unstable daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly). James successfully counsels a troubled young man (Killian Scott) and befriends an American writer (M. Emmett Walsh).
And, as Sunday approaches, James is forced to decide whether to leave his parish or to go to the beach.
Calvary is a great film, one that consistently takes you by surprise and forces you to think. In many ways, James serves as a stand-in for the entire Catholic Church. He’s made mistakes, he’s been battered, and he struggles with doubt. And yet, at the same time, he is still capable of doing so much good. Calvary is one of the best Catholic films ever made.
And it also features Brendan Gleeson’s best performance to date. That is truly saying something because Brendan Gleeson is one of our greatest actors. Gleeson is onscreen for every minute of Calvary and his emotional and, at times, warmly humorous performance is an amazing thing to behold. When we first see James, he’s a weary and burned-out man. Over the course of the week (and the film), he goes from being frightened to angry to sad to eventually achieving a state of grace.
It’s a great performance in a great film.
You may have missed Calvary in 2014.
Don’t miss it again.