Mark Reviews Movies



4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: John Michael McDonagh

Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Chris O'Dowd, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, David Wilmot, Orla O'Rourke, Isaach De Bankolé, Domhnall Gleeson, M. Emmet Walsh, Marie-Josée Croze

MPAA Rating: R (for sexual references, language, brief strong violence and some drug use)

Running Time: 1:40

Release Date: 8/1/14 (limited); 8/8/14 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 7, 2014

At the start of Calvary, the words of St. Augustine appear: "Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned." He is referring to the two thieves who were crucified on either side of Jesus on that hill called Calvary. One, seeking penance and comfort in his dying moments, believed; the other, holding fast to his ways even in the face of death, chose rejection and mockery. As it is worded, Augustine's statement is not as blunt as the story upon which he is commenting. With the allusion, he is speaking directly to the notion of faith—not the absence of it. The lesson is a simple one: Faith requires certainty but not too much certainty. That road leads to the sin of pride.

One who trusts that he or she is the believing thief—certain in his or her faith—may be less likely to truly consider the morality of one's actions. If one believes oneself to be "saved" by some inherent goodness or alleged faithfulness, doesn't that person believe everything that he or she does is "good" or—if it is a sin—at least forgiven?

Writer/director John Michael McDonagh's exceptional and exceptionally thoughtful film concerns itself greatly with matters of sin. It is set in a small village in Ireland where everyone knows everyone else's business, and a lot of that business is unseemly.

There is a married woman (Orla O'Rourke) who is engaged in extramarital affairs with a string of men. In an act of anger, either her husband (Chris O'Dowd) or one of her lovers has given her a black eye. There is a wealthy man (Dylan Moran) who has ruined the lives of countless people in pursuit of his personal fortune. At one point in a drunken stupor, he urinates on an expensive painting to demonstrate how much he has, and he seems to be under the mistaken belief that the Catholic Church still peddles in indulgences. The younger parish priest (David Wilmot), who is confused about much and especially about the specifics of his religion, is not only happy to receive the rich man's donation but also convinced of the goodness of the man giving it.

When we first see a lot of these people, they are at church, participating in the Eucharist. In their own ways, these people have presumed and, as a result, have taken their faith for granted.

Caught up in the middle of all of this is Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson), a widower who received the calling to the priesthood after the death of his wife. He is the kind of priest who makes house calls, and he is also the type who knows that spiritual guidance can only go so far. He is compassionate but not naïve. He is knowledgeable in the ways of his faith but not pushy. James is a good priest, and for that reason, one of his parishioners threatens to kill him in a week's time.

The man—whose identity is hidden from us by the anonymity of the shadowy confessional—says he could kill a priest like the one who raped him when he was a boy. That wouldn't get the same kind of attention.

James knows who the man is, but holding true to the secrecy of the sacrament, he refuses to go to the police. Even when the bishop of his diocese (David McSavage) tells him the threat lies outside the sacramental seal, James remains mum on the issue to everyone, including his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), who has come to stay with her father after a failed suicide attempt. She recalls a Japanese author whose suicide note included a list of famous suicides that included Jesus (James calls the writer a "wise-ass).

This brings us to the most devious part of the man's threat. He does not simply say that he will kill the priest; he gives James a specific time when and place where the murder will occur. He offers James the choice of whether or not to face his death.

The way out, of course, is simple: either don't show up or get out of town. He sticks around for the time being. He has a flock to which to tend. The decision seems to be one of determining whether or not his work in this village is worth the very real possibility of dying for these people. Which way, though, leads to pride: self-preservation at the cost of people who could be helped or self-sacrifice for people who simply do not care?

What McDonagh understands—and quite wisely—is that faith is not merely a matter of belief. It is one of choice and of making choices. We often reduce the scope of religion to its concerns with the unfathomable—a divine power, an afterlife, and good and evil. That is what we do not and cannot know for certain, so don't the more important elements of religious faith involve the things we do know for sure? What point is there to religion if it does not provide an example of how to live in the here and now?

As Fiona puts it while speaking with her father about her suicide attempt, "Every moment in life has its own logic." We may not know the correct decision at any given moment, but there must be some foundation with which to make the choice. James calls it "virtue."

The film is rich with intelligent, meditative dialogue, which is often sincere and, at times, wickedly funny. Take the local doctor (Aidan Gillen), a steadfast atheist. He jokes that a group of teenagers who, while driving drunk, killed themselves and a tourist from France are in the morgue—"where they belong." James argues that every life is sacred; the doctor counters with a statement of cynical rationality that is difficult to deny. James' discussion with the vacationer's widow (Marie-Josée Croze) is a turning point for the character and the film itself. Here is a religiously devout woman who shows James faith in practice under the most difficult of circumstances. She serves as a stark contrast to his wayward parishioners.

Gleeson is the film's anchor, in a performance in which weariness and frustration are at constant battle with conviction and integrity. He is a regular man trying to make sense of everyday sin, weighing the impact of his ordinary life, and contemplating if his death—if it comes at the appointed time—will mean something. There is a growing desperation to the character, who makes some questionable decisions as the film approaches its climax. Ultimately, there is only one choice that genuinely matters in Calvary, and it's not the one that McDonagh sets up at the start. There's a powerful, unanswered question lingering at the film's end: pride or virtue? The choice is ours.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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