The name Calvary is derived from a Latin word meaning ‘skull’. Christians believe that Jesus was crucified at a place called The Skull, which is often translated in modern versions of the Bible as Calvary. The essence of the Christian story about Jesus is that he was an innocent man who suffered and died for the suffering and sins of humanity. The new movie from director John Michael McDonagh, who gave us The Guard in 2011, draws on this theme in CALVARY, starring Brendan Gleeson, who we have most recently seen as General Brigham in Edge of Tomorrow. Gleeson is sensational.
Calvary tells the story of a good-natured priest who, after he is threatened during a confession, must battle the dark forces closing in around him. Set in a small Irish village where the residents are all flawed humans experiencing immeasurable depths of emotional suffering and pain, Father James Lavelle spends his time travelling around his community trying to pastor his parishioners in what seems like an impossible project. His daughter (played by Kelly Reilly) also comes to visit and she adds to the emotional strain with her own troubled past. The whole story takes place during one week with the backdrop of Father Lavelle’s anxiety at the serious threat which opens the film on the first Sunday of the story.
The first line in the movie, spoken by a parishioner (unknown to us) is shocking and is the start of the pealing back of the layers of evil and suffering in this intimate community. The parishioner who threatens the priest makes the point that killing a bad priest wouldn’t have any impact. Killing a good priest will draw the required attention. And Father Lavelle is considered a good priest – despite his obvious flawed humanity.
For anyone who knows the Christian story of Jesus Christ and his taking on the suffering of humanity, CALVARY will communicate its striking story with emotional power. For those who don’t, there will perhaps be less direct association of the two stories, but every one of us cannot help seeing in this movie a powerful statement of so much apparently in resolvable suffering in our world.
The choice of an “innocent” Catholic priest as the main protagonist of this story is filled with deep irony given what we now know of the evil perpetrated by some priests on young children. As Father Lavelle interacts with his parishioners over the seven days of the story, themes of life, death, suffering, evil, despair are all explored – not always in great depth, but perfused with gallows humour that, paradoxically, while we are laughing, sends an arrow of recognition straight to the heart that proves that humour can deal with the most serious of issues.
The best thing about CALVARY is the dialogue which is sharp, penetrating, and astute. This is no action movie and does, in fact, feel a little slow at times. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but, in my opinion, is destined to become a classic.