At the center of John Michael McDonagh’s “Calvary” is a very good man. Father James (Brendan Gleeson), the parish priest of a small Irish fishing village, is no saint; he’s judgmental (though he tries not to be) and struggles with his fondness for drink. But his kind, rocklike presence is an anchor for the village, where he knows and cares for everyone — even the unseen person who, in the film’s electric opening scene, announces in the confessional his intention to kill the priest, “Sunday week.” This person, furious and damaged by sexual abuse at the hands of another (now dead) priest as a child, wants to kill Father James because he’s good — people will notice the murder of an innocent man.
“Calvary” then unfolds as a ticking clock, or a murder mystery in reverse, as Father James tends to his affairs in what may be his final week on Earth. And it serves as a marvelous showcase for Gleeson, a great old-lion actor who shows, in the film’s many close-ups, a quiet, weary yet unbending faith, and a face on which emotion can play like a wave on the beach. Father James is a widower who joined the priesthood after his wife’s death; his troubled grown-up daughter (Kelly Reilly) saw that as an abandonment. “I’m still here. I’ll always be here,” he tells her. To the villagers, he’s like those rugged shores that encircle the town: solid, unchanging, ever-present.
Being a priest in the 21st century can be, we see, a terrible burden; in a devastating scene, Father James makes pleasant conversation with a child only to be instantly put on the defensive by her furious dad. (You see in Father James’ shattered face that he remembers a time, not so long ago, when parents would be grateful to find their child talking to a priest.) Though the villagers agree on his goodness, one notes that “it makes you wonder what he’s hiding.”
As “Calvary” introduces us to the various villagers, each of whom have their own vivid story, it’s not too difficult to guess the identity of the would-be killer. But this film, strong and rugged as its hero, eventually casts off the mystery cloak and becomes a character drama, with bits of dark comedy throughout. By its moving final moments, we’ve become a part of the town — and learned a few things about faith and forgiveness.
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