DENNIS SCHWARTZ Movie Reviews

CALVARY (director/writer: John Michael McDonagh; cinematographer: Larry Smith; editor:  Chris Gill; music:  Patrick Cassidy; cast: Brendan Gleeson (Priest, Father James), Chris O’Dowd (Jack Brennan), Kelly Reilly (Fiona, the priest's daughter), Aidan Gillen (Dr. Frank Harte), Dylan Moran (Fitzgerald, wealthy man), Isaach de Bankolé (Simon Asamoah), M. Emmet Walsh (Gerald Ryan), Marie-Josée Croze (Teresa Robert), Orla O’Rourke (Veronica), Domhnall Gleeson (Freddie Joyce, the priest's criminal son), Gary Lydon (Inspector Stanton), Owen Sharpe (Leo, Male prostitute), Killian Scott (Milo Herlihy), Pat Shortt (Brendan Lynch), David Wilmot (Father Leary), David McSavage (Bishop Garret Montgomery), Mícheál Óg Lane (Mícheál, altar boy); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Chris Clark/Flora Fernandez Marengo/James Flynn; Fox Searchlight Pictures; 2014-UK)

"asks troubling questions about keeping the faith in a fallen world."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Brit filmmaker John Michael McDonagh ("The Guard") is of Irish descent. The auteur frames an impressive arty religious drama that bleakly blends together a caustic gallows humor comedy of rural life in Ireland and at the same time seriously probes religious questions about iniquity and the Catholic belief in forgiveness. The filmmaker asks troubling questions about keeping the faith in a fallen world and muses why the church is failing its followers over critical concerns regarding personal matters. The film's clerical protagonist believes his parishioners still go to church only because of their fear of death and don't take seriously anymore the church dogmas. The erudite priest, too sophisticated to be in the sticks, in his own sly way ponders why the Catholic Church has a long history of tolerating sexual abuse among its priests.

Father James (Brendan Gleeson) resides in a scenically beautiful remote village in the County of Sligo. One day the small-town nice guy Irish priest hears the confession of an unnamed mystery man, who claims he was sexually abused as a 7-year-old over the course of five years and threatens to kill Father James rather than the pedophile priest who abused him. The damaged-goods accuser reasons that “There’s no point in killing a bad priest, I’m going to kill you because you’re innocent.” He then sets the execution date for one week later, on a Sunday. We also learn through the confessor that the abusive unnamed priest is deceased. In any case, the threat leaves the shaken priest wondering who is the threatening parishioner and how he will face up to his personal Calvary.

When the anguished priest tells his bishop (David McSavage) of the confessional threat, he gets no help from the church just like the abused children vics weren't helped.

A whodunit emerges, as the priest goes about his priestly chores during the week and views a number of his messed-up coastal village parishioners as suspects: the idiotic humiliated cuckolded butcher (Chris O’Dowd), the butcher's uncaring slutty wife (Orla O’Rourke), the haughty mechanic immigrant Ivory Coast Negro ( Isaach de Bankolé) sleeping openly with the butcher's wife and seeing nothing wrong in beating her because that's what Irish girls want, the sinister queer police inspector (Gary Lydon) and the sassy male prostitute (Owen Sharpe) the lawman procures, the unhappy lonesome wealthy financial whiz (Dylan Moran) who thinks he can pay for his sins with a big church donation, a vile coke-snorting atheist doctor (Aidan Gillen), the sex-crazed unhappy young loner bartender (Killian Scott) with violent impulses, a harmless aging and ailing American writer (M. Emmet Walsh) with nothing more to live for after he finishes his latest book (the least likely culprit), and the cynical Buddhist bar owner (Pat Shortt).

The priest in question probably has guessed who is the culprit, but chooses to honor the confessional. We ultimately learn that Father James is a widower, a father, a dog lover, a recovering alcoholic, and, above all else, a pragmatic and glibly wise man, someone who allows himself to be trapped in a scenario that he cannot control to live out his trip as the dutiful priest. Father James must also must reconcile with his profane daughter (Kelly Reilly), who made an attempt to commit suicide and is visiting from London; his imprisoned sex maniac murderer son (Domhnall Gleeson, the real-life son of Brendan) who wants his love; that he must be a father-figure to a playful altar boy (Mícheál Óg Lane), who is an aspiring painter; and that he also must confront a young assistant priest (David Wilmot), who doesn't have the calling for clerical life because he lacks integrity. There's also a thoughtful encounter the priest has on the beach with a nice woman tourist (Marie-Josee Croze), who just lost her husband in a car accident but has not lost her faith.

Gleeson is terrific as the psychologically wounded and blemished priest who humbly takes the high road in this theological thriller, as he's asked to literally live the myth of Christ and wonder if it's worth it and if that's the only way to shake up the flock to become true believers. It's hard to buy into all the agenda-driven pessimistic blarney that's too easily delivered, but there's enough real passion to make this smart art-house drama sometimes sizzle with earnest conviction.

REVIEWED ON 9/8/2014       GRADE: B+

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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