September, 2014, Drama

 As the 1st world’s most Roman Catholic country, Ireland has been rocked over the past two years by the exposure of priestly pedophilia and the Church’s systematic attempts to cover up the problem. The issue culminated in a public dispute between the government and The Vatican, causing support for the Church to plummet.

British-born writer/director John Michael McDonagh delivers here an excoriating examination of the collapse in support of those in the pews following the aftermath of this much-publicized scandal. In his script, (laced with aptly-placed obscenities) the shabby response of the Church’s ordained ministers  provides a brilliantly unspoken context against which a largely Irish cast headed by Brendan Gleeson (Braveheart, Troy, Gangs of New York, The Guard) hammers home the resentment, disgust and anger felt by the ordinary citizens of a small, rural town where widower-turned-cleric Fr. James (Gleeson)  tries to provide sensitive responses to the needs of those in his parish community. Outrage and despair have rarely been displayed with such searing accuracy.


The film opens with a scene in the confessional that culminates in a lethal threat and it closes in a prison visitor’s room with a mute plea for forgiveness and reconciliation. Between those end points, the storyline lurches among a number of subplots, remorselessly exploring the price paid by those who have suffered - directly and indirectly – from the Roman Catholic hierarchy’s response to (and handling of) this still unfolding tragedy.

Beginning with the Pope, each cardinal, bishop and priest should be strapped into a chair and forced to see this movie from its anguished beginning to its festering end. 

A seasoned cast that includes Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen & M. Emmett Walsh, embodies the deep and abiding sense of loathing, disillusion and cynicism felt by the Fr. James’ parishioners. Although each avoids direct mention of pedophilia, it lurks just underneath the surface, corroding religious faith with deadening cynicism. There’s a surgeon who mocks the priest’s attempts at reaching others spiritually, a drunken butcher who beats his adulterous wife while denying any moral responsibility for doing so, a gay prostitute who acts out his self-loathing in every word and gesture he employs and even James’ suicidal daughter, who accuses him of rejecting her in order to pursue his efforts at helping others.  Even a casual, public conversation between the priest and a 12 year old girl culminates in silent parental accusation of complicity in the conspiracy of silence that marked the uncovering of clerical abuse. Through it all, Fr. James struggles to maintain a balance between an honest acceptance of his institution’s culpability and his own religious faith.  

McDonagh and Gleeson’s previous film (The Guard) provided ample proof of the former’s skills as a screenwriter and the latter’s ability to convey the scruffy, profane police work of the Irish constabulary, but nothing in that movie prepares the viewer for the crushing impact of violated innocence, pious detachment and senseless violence conveyed in this one.  Winner of the Jury Prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival as well as the Best Film & Actor Awards from The Irish Film & Television Festival, Calvary’s skill is exceeded only by its savagery.

The Verdict? A brilliant film, but not for the faint of heart.  






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