Friday, August 8, 2014

Calvary: Focusing on the Virtues In Life

Calvary: Poster | A Constantly Racing MindGod is great, the limits of his mercy have not been set  ~  Father James Lavelle

W hat do you say about a film that starts with two men in a confessional and ends with one of those men ends up dying on a beach a week later. "Calvary" is a drama set in Ireland, and explores the sins of the Catholic Church, a town's utter hypocrisy, and a priest's desire to rise above it all and provide comfort and solace to his people.  Brendan Gleeson ("28 Days Later," "Cold Mountain," "The Guard," “The Edge of Tomorrow”) stars as Father James Lavelle.  He is a Catholic priest in a small rural parish in Sligo, Northern Ireland.  The town sports a variety of characters from the adulteress, to her lover and her husband, the morally corrupt millionaire, to a serial murderer, an American writer, a cynical coke snorting doctor, and a fellow priest lacking in integrity.  Above all, Father James's daughter (before he joined the priesthood) is staying with him after a suicide attempt.  With all this on his plate, the good Father must also deal with his own impending death.  This isn't a film for kids.  This is a film about life and as such there is plenty of swearing, priests included, and as such the film gets an R rating.  

Writer and director, John Michael McDonagh, opens the film with a startling and disturbing scene.  While in confession, Father James hears the story of one his parishioner's molestation and rape when the man was only seven.  When Father James asks if the confessor wants to file a complaint, the man says that the priest has been dead many years now.  Not willing to seek counseling, the man wants revenge and says, “Killing a bad priest isn't a big deal, but if you kill a good priest, people take notice."  The man tells Father James that he has until the following Sunday to put his affairs in order and to meet him on the beach.

Shaken, but undaunted, Father James goes on with his life, and his work.  He says Mass on Sunday; giving communion to the people he serves.  He half-heartedly accuses Mícheál (Michael Og Lane), his alter boy, of stealing booze and putting too much wine in the communion cups.  He sees the boy later on the beach drawing a picture of the beach.  However, in his picture there are two extra people in the scene.  Father James asks him about them, and the boy replies, "I’ve been having a lot of dreams about ghosts lately."

Father James works with Father Leary (David Wilmot), a man whose convictions as a priest are sometimes less than desirable.  He's a gossip, he is more concerned with money than with people, he is racist, and he is too detached from the people he serves.  James tells the priest that their duty is to provide solace for their flock.  Later, James determines that although he doesn't hate this Father Leary, he finds the man lazy, and utterly lacking in integrity.

Calvary: Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson| A Constantly Racing Mind

Although Father James Lavelle is a simple man, he wasn't always a priest.  He once was a husband and a father.  After his wife died, he entered the ministry.  His damaged daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly - "Flight," "Eden Lake"), tried to commit suicide and failed.  She is coming to stay with her father while she thinks about her life.  Her father is genuinely happy to see her.  He tells his daughter that she sliced her arm across the wrist rather than going lengthwise down the arm.  He was joking.  Fiona is obviously troubled and in need of counsel.  Father James spends much of his off time with his daughter when he isn't attending to his parishioners.

Veronica Brennan (Orla O'Rourke) has a black eye, and is having an affair with Simon (Isaach De Bankolé), an immigrant from the Ivory Coast.  Her husband James (Chris O'Dowd - "Bridesmaids," "Thor: The Dark World"), is the town's butcher and claims not only that he knows about his wife's infidelity, but that he likes the arrangement.  He blames the black eye on Simon, but that his wife crazy, and that she is either "bi-polar or lactose intolerant.”  Father James meets with Simon afterward, trying to figure out who actually smacked Veronica.  James is more concerned with stopping the abuse, and not so much with the adultery.  Approaching Simon about the beating, their conversation gets mildly heated and Simon flicks a cigarette at him and it lands on Father James coat.  In a Christ like manner, the priest brushes it away as Simon threatens him to mind his own business.  

"It will be black day when the Catholic Church has no interest in money.”  ~ Michael Fitzgerald

The town includes a millionaire by the name of Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran -- "Shaun of the Dead," "Run, Fatboy, Run," "Notting Hill") whose general detachment to everyone have left alone and spiteful, and now he spends his days drinking, shooting skeet, and being a general prick.  He wants the father to visit him about a financial arrangement.  Upon arrival at his mini castle, Fitzgerald torments Father James and ridicules the man, his faith, and ultimately God.  In his drunken rant, he urinates on a painting of the "Ambassadors" by Hans Holbein.  Why not, as Father James points out, "You pissed on everything else." 

Each incident that the priest encounters on his last week on Earth becomes a mockery of his faith in one way or other.  In each case he tries to stay calm, rational, and allow the insults, the cynicism and anger pass over him.  On his way to the beach one day, he encounter a young girl (Anabel Sweeney) of about 8 or 9 years-old.  He has idle chitchat with the girl, but when they approach a cross roads, a car pulls up to a screeching halt and an angry man jumps out yelling at his daughter to get in the car.  He threatens the priest to stay away from kids.  Gleeson does a wonderful job of showing both the anger and the pity for his fellow man.  

The town doctor, Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen - "Games of Thrones") calls for Father James to come to the hospital to give the last rites to a man who was in a car wreck with some drunken teens.  He meets briefly with the dying man's wife and then he does his duty for the man.  The drunken kids ended up in the morgue.  Father James takes some time to minister to the deceased man's wife, Teresa.  They talk about life, death, religion, and faith.  Teresa asks about what in life is fair.  Ultimately, they both conclude that life is not unfair, it is, “just what happens."  Outside the hospital, the arrogant and cocky Harte quips that, he, the "Atheist doctor is a cliché," and would rather be in Father James's shoes, the pious priest.  Instead he is cursed with, "one part humanist, nine parts gallows humor." 

Calvary:Brendan Gleeson as Father James Lavelle | A Constantly Racing Mind

Even the youth of the town are disturbed, and skeptical about their future.  Milo (Killian Scott), tells the priest that he feels he only has two options in life.  Either he can join the army or he can kill himself.  Father James is surprised at this revelation and talks more to Milo.  Being unable to talk to girls, Milo feels that he has little recourse in his life.  The priest, of course, tells him that suicide isn't a good idea nor is joining the army.  The priest tells the youth, "I've always felt there's something inherently psychopathic about joining the army in peace time, as far as I'm concerned, people join the army to find out what it’s like to kill someone.  I hardly think that's an inclination that should be encouraged in modern society, do you?"

His encounter at the prison with serial murderer Freddie Joyce doesn't go well either.  Freddy killed many people but is unable to tell the police where the last body is found.  Initially he shows no remorse and uses the excuse that he was "tripping on LSD" for his memory failure.  Joyce also talks about how he ate the flesh of his victims.  He then tells Father James he is sorry.  Domhnall Gleeson is Brendan' Gleeson's son, and he plays this scene opposite his father, with a tone of underlying mockery, and Gleeson’s reaction is one of disgust as Joyce breaks down crying.

Of all the people in the town, Father James doesn't catch a break.  The town’s people come to him with their problems, and for solace, but not for repentance.  They wallow in their own, cynicism, and their own sense of hypocrisy.  Two beings that Father James encounters during this week show the benevolent priest respect and kindness.  The first is his dog, whom somebody later that evening slits the poor animals throat.  In despair, James sobs in despair at what a human did to the innocent animal.  The second is an old man only known as "The Writer."  Played by M. Emmett Walsh, he is an American getting on in years and is writing his next novel.  The first time we meet him, he is in his home, and the priest pays him a visit.  Father James brings him some gifts of food and a book the old man requested.  The next request the Writer asks of Father James is the Walther PPK.  The Walther, the Writer explains is the gun that James Bond used.  Asking why he would want such a gun when there really isn’t any crime in Silgo?  The old man replied that he wasn't planning on waiting to become old and feeble.  Father James takes this information in with a quiet understanding.  He doesn't scold or admonish, just says he doesn't think it is a good idea, but he will see what he could do.  

Inspector Stanton (Gary Lydon), the town detective has a rather odd relationship with the priest.  When Father James drops by on 'personal business,' he finds the inspector entertaining a Leo, a gay prostitute, or, is that the other way around.  Leo, not only shows the priest no respect, he offers to have sex with the man while he wears his vestments.  Because, Leo says, he knows that's how priests like it.  The reason for him being there is that he wants to ask the Inspector for a gun. However, Father James doesn't tell him why he needs it nor does he report the threat.  As leader of his parish, he knows who threatened him, yet I believe that Father James denies in his heart that the man will actually do him harm. 

Calvary:Brendan Gleeson  and Chris O'Dowd | A Constantly Racing Mind
The beleaguered priest deals with just about all of the seven deadly sins and makes his way through a symbolic journey of each of the Stations of the Cross.  He is condemned at the beginning, and director McDonagh even names Veronica and Simon after two onlookers who are at the stations.  The heavy overtones of religion are offset by semi-comical interactions and quirky dialog offered by the townsfolk.  On one level, McDonagh serves an indictment of the Catholic Church in general, and organized religion as a whole.  The characters reflect a certain sense of absurdness and nihilism in that they tend to accept the institute of religion on one hand, and revile it with their passivity.  Father James Lavelle isn’t perfect, far from it.  He is as human as the rest of us.  A Couple of nights after someone burns down the church, the priest, who so far has abstained from drinking alcohol (because he likes it too much) when he visits the local pub, in his anger and depression, gets drunk.  He lashes out at the tavern owner (Pat Shortt), who punishes the priest with a cricket bat.  

Brendan Gleeson does a remarkable job as Father James.  The passion in the character seems to come from the heart.  He plays a noble man with a noble heart amongst sinners whose real sin is that of the pursuit of pure selfish and hedonistic lifestyles with no care for their fellowman.  Gleeson’s strong performance not only carries the film, but also guides the audience (from any nation) along in this crazy Irish community.  Chris O'Dowd, Jack the butcher and Veronica’s husband, hails from the Silgo area, and although known for comedic roles in the past, turns in an angry, passive aggressive performance.  Dylan Moran’s performance is also the opposite of what on may expect of the comedic actor.  His sense of detachment to humanity fits well in this tale woe.  Larry Smith’s cinematography captures the beauty of Ireland, and the cloud of depression that hangs in the fog.

Although the ending is shocking in its violence and anger, it was in some ways anticipated.  Not that McDonagh’s film is predictable, not at all.  However, as the title of the film implies, “Calvary” is the place where one man atones for the sins of all of humanity.  On various levels, we learn from Father James, that there are good men and women of the cloth and not all of them fall into the stereotypes of pedophile priest and viciously mean nuns.  “Calvary” has a message that not everyone will be able to sit through, that not all people who hold positions in the religious community, are self-righteous hypocrites, but that they are human beings, failed and weak.  Instead of focusing on all the sins of the town, or the world for that matter, Father James thinks it is better to focus on the virtues of life. The first one, Lavelle says should be forgiveness.  The character of Father James, is one we can identify whether we are religious or not, Christian or not, Catholic or not, and the films McDonagh’ ending may not sit well with all audiences but it will make you think and perhaps rethink your worldview.

Movie Data
Genre: Drama
Year:  2014
Staring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O'Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach De Bankolé, David Wilmot, Orla O'Rourke
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Producer(s): Alexandre Aja, Riza Aziz, Joey McFarland, Cathy Schulman
Writer: John Michael McDonagh
Rating: R
Running Time: 100 minutes
Release Date: 8/8/2014

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