Calvary opens with conversation and ends in silence, yet begins with only one face and ends with two. It’s a symbolic decision in the most recent film from John Michael McDonagh, one defined – and perhaps overwhelmed – by symbolic decisions. As it follows its world-weary gruff-but-compassionate honest-to-a-fault priest (the great Brendan Gleeson), one can’t help but see the people and settings he encounters in capital letters. Calvary is a film whose greatest strength – its powerful, intuitive grasp of religious and sociopolitical allegory – is also its greatest weakness.
Father James is a man of the cloth and a man of many burdens, mostly centered around serving a small town in western Ireland characterized by despair and the small sins of everyday tragedy. After receiving a death threat in confession from one of the townsfolk (whose identity we don’t know, though Father James does). We follow him as he ministers over the course of eight days (one Sunday to the next). In that week he mostly talks and listens, and little in the town really changes (with one momentous exception). He attempts to repair his relationship with his suicidal daughter, fixes marriages, tends to a survivor of a horrible accident, counsels the remorseless, and in general advocates for virtue among people obsessed with their own sins… to little avail, or so it seems.
Calvary is about a network of intertwined concentric crises, each informing, causing, and allegorically commenting on the other, escalating from the personal to the town to the nation to the fate and place of a two-thousand-year-old Church. Calvary is thin on establishing shots of its human settings, often cutting directly into close- and medium-shots; instead, it punctuates scenes with bleak but beautiful landscapes, great hills and crashing waves, making it exceptionally clear the film is about Ireland and God. When it does frame its characters, it’s often against images of Christ. Calvary is not subtle. This film has been advertised as a “dark comedy,” but it decidedly is not, and only shows how confused people get when something difficult and wrenching refuses to be relentlessly self-consciously serious and stolid in tone. It is, instead, a markedly Catholic and Irish parable, one which consciously tries to build a narrative around the proposition its priest offers to the town, and thereby offers us that same proposition.
Unfortunately, though, Calvary is also not quite able to marry the complexity and intricacy of its interwoven allegories with key narrative elements. Most of the supporting characters are thinly-drawn and formulaic, with their role in the film’s metaphor driving their characterization in a handful of broad strokes and allowing the actors to fill in the blanks. When Calvary works, it’s because the cast – Gleeson, of course, but also Aidan Gillen, Isaach De Bankolé, and Chris O’Dowd – is able to breathe life into McDonagh’s chess pieces. When it doesn’t, though, it feels simplistic and forced, to the point where characters even comment on their own dialogue as being “corny.” The tautness of the film’s allegorical structure also confuses, as opposed to elucidate, whether certain omissions or consistent choices are deliberate or simply oversights. Is the lack of any female character over 40 a statement about the vanishing role of elder maternity anchoring communities? Or just a fumble? The women who are in the film are all beautiful and defined mostly by their relationship with men, on the other hand, feels nothing but sour.
Calvary is a movie attempting to tackle timeless themes and make a statement about big proper nouns, and it’s not lacking in intelligence or insight. While inspired by the great transcendentalist films, it doesn’t attempt the same austerity or vérité that define modern transcendental films (most notably those of the brothers Dardenne). Calvary is conversational, breezier, and more meandering despite its brief length then its rigid structure would suggest. A film named after the place where Christ was murdered, that opens with words from Augustine, Calvary is far from perfect. Yet it never refrains from challenging its audience in genuinely meaningful ways, something that, despite what Calvary does not do right, should not be taken for granted.