Calvary (2014)

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Written & Directed by: John Michael McDonagh

Setting: Ireland

Calvary (also Golgotha) was, according to the Gospels, a site immediately outside Jerusalem’s walls where Jesus was crucified..

“I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.”

This jarring, heartwrenching opening line is spoken to Father James (Brendan Gleeson), in the confessional, by a parishioner. Although we see grief and compassion in his face, Father James — who communicates in dry, witty retorts — is at a loss for an empathetic response.


The unseen man discloses that he was molested by a priest. Then he makes a startling statement: “I’m going to kill you, Father.” He wants to kill a priest. Not a bad priest — a good priest. He believes the murder of Father James, well regarded and apparently free of blame, will make a more powerful statement than the death of a closet pervert possibly could.

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As the movie’s title makes clear, James is potentially a Christ figure, a sacrificial lamb. And throughout the film, as he continues ministering to his flock, we see him carrying the sins of the church like an albatross. The weary people of his parish angrily confront him about everything from the Catholic Church’s tacit complicity with Nazi Germany to the well-publicized sexual abuse of children by priests in recent decades. In addition to all this, James — a recovering alcoholic trying to heal his relationship with his troubled daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) — is painfully aware of his own vulnerabilities.

The overriding theme of this film, however, is acceptance. Father James’ bishop assures him that since the parishioner who threatened him was not seeking absolution, he is free to report it to the authorities. James knows the identity of this person, but it is not revealed to the audience until the end.

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Instead of taking action to fend off an attack, James continues to fulfill his responsibilities, visiting parishioners, offering comfort or provoking them to take responsibility for their actions and their lives. He confronts a serial killer and helps a friend face his imminent death. In some cases, he offers some rather progressive pastoral advice. He asks a sexually frustrated young man, “Have you tried pornography?” — This is not the Catholic church my husband grew up in. 🙂

James struggles to choose the right course of action, find the courage and inner peace to move forward, and face whatever is ahead. The faith and acceptance he strives for are reflected in a young French woman whose husband was just killed in an accident. In the face of a devastating loss, she seems preternaturally calm, choosing to focus on the love they shared.

However the cynicism and hostility of James’ neighbors wears him down. They are jaded by the church’s abuses of power and their own misfortunes. James faces belligerence at every turn, and the village has a sinister vibe.

Despite the suspenseful premise, this is a contemplative, philosophical movie with a lot to say about morality, fear of death, the nature of faith, and what gives life meaning. And it’s a beautiful character study of Father James, a man who is kind but doesn’t suffer fools gladly. A smart, compassionate, and dedicated man, with the courage to face his own flaws and failures, trying to be of service in a world that’s lost faith in religious leaders.

I also love the brittle but affectionate relationship between James and Fiona. He’s a man with a loquacious wit who struggles with emotional language. He often can’t find words to express his love, devotion, and regret, but he conveys great tenderness — every facial expression speaks volumes. What a great actor Brendan Gleeson is! This is his best performance among the films I’ve seen, even better than his role in In Bruges.

Although Calvary is dark, it is surprisingly funny and entertaining. The dialogue is clever, witty, and often thought provoking. It offers beautiful cinematography, with gorgeous shots of the Irish coast, strong storytelling, and outstanding acting across the board. It is an unsettling movie, in the best sense of the word. It is likely to make you think, inspire discussion, and continue to grow upon reflection.

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