Monday, March 31, 2014

'Calvary' (2014) directed by John Michael McDonagh

Two Irish Catholic priests live together in an isolated Irish village. One of them has a cosmopolitan attitude to life that's at odds with the rural environment he finds himself in, the other is dull as ditchwater.  Their parish is almost entirely populated by the eccentric, the psychotic and the just plain weird. Sound familiar?  Yup, Calvary is a down-at-hell, darkly comedic psychodrama by way of Father Ted.  It's also quietly brilliant and very, very complex.

Brendan Gleeson plays Father James Lavelle (who is presumably not named after the DJ). He's everything you hope a priest would be: intelligent, tolerant, kind and caring, looking after his parishioners in a quietly paternal fashion: bringing a parcel of food to an elderly writer one moment, gently enquiring as to why someone's wife has a black eye the next and dispensing pretty damn good advice to confused young men. The real problem in the film the congregation; the village seems to attract sinners like honey attracts flies.

Calvary announces its intentions from the unforgettable opening line of the movie: "I was seven years old when I tasted semen for the first time".  This comes from a mystery man talking through a confessional screen, who proceeds to explain that he's a victim of Catholic child abuse and consequently he's going to kill Father Lavelle a week next Sunday.  There's never the remotest question that Lavelle abused any children - he's been chosen precisely because he's innocent, the justification being that killing a bad priest is pointless, but killing a 'good' one will send a message.  Lavelle takes the threat phlegmatically, and the rest of the film gradually counts down the days of the week until Sunday and his impending murder. The 'Calvary' of the title, named for the site in Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified, is the village beach where our priest will undergo his own sacrifice and torture.

The cinematography is austere and precise without ever seeming mannered, the jaw-dropping enormousness of the Irish geography framed to diminish the people within it. There's something primordially biblical about the landscape, the winds and waters whipping through it creating an impression of unfinished creation.  Characters lean against millennia old granite builders, or stare blankly out over a rough sea - all under an overcast sky.

The sum of all these impressions is that this is a village abandoned by God. Nobody seems remotely devout here, regarding the priest as at best a figure of fun and at worst a nannying bignose. Even Father Lavelle himself never seems particularly religious, placing his social duties to his parish far beyond any obligations he has to supernatural deities.  This absence of spirituality leaves a psychic hole in the village, something intangible has vanished from the place - while their backs were turned the devil got in.

Don't think that Calvary is a studiously Christian movie though - the Catholicism that the film revolves around is portrayed as a stuffy, corrupt bureaucracy manned by the incompetent and the stupid.  When the villagers sling jibes about the greed of the church, the out-datedness of its beliefs or its propensity for child rape they hurt Father Lavelle all the more because they're dead on the mark.

Pretty soon you realise that McDonagh intends this village and its inhabitants as a microcosm of modern Ireland. The collapse of the 'Celtic Tiger' is at the forefront of nearly all the character's minds, and the injustice of it is embodied in the character of Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran). Fitzgerald is a prick; a former banker who thrived in the soup of dodgy dealings before the 2008 crash and got out at just the right time. He took his millions and ran, living alone in a fabulously opulent mansion just outside of town and sinking into a narcissistic, egomaniacal alcoholic stupor. This is a film jampacked full of pointed allegories; the angriest an astonishing moment where Fitzgerald yanks the priceless renaissance painting The Ambassadors by Holbein from his wall and pisses on it "because I can".

The slanted skull at the centre of The Ambassadors is about as good a symbol of Calvary as you can get. From the initial premise on outwards the film is obsessed with death and dying; tossing in morose stories of young children locked into paralysed, senseless bodies, young men wanting to join the army to kill people, a visit to a cannibal in prison, fatally senseless car accidents and two entirely separate suicide attempts; one happening before the film begins and one planned to happen soon after.  

If all this is an allegory for modern Ireland, John McDonagh must be a deeply pessimistic dude.  Here we see a morbid, traumatised society on the brink of collapse; spiritually vacant, sexually abused and economically assaulted this is a world spiralling down the plughole. The best intentions of good men count for nothing within this nihilistic, bleak worldview, the film essentially concluding that we're doomed and nothing (certainly not God) is going to save us. It all comes together over the closing credits, interspersed with the names of grips and gaffers are shots of the sets devoid of people. Somehow, somewhere the apocalypse quietly crept in, the disappearance of all life just about the only peaceful conclusion McDonagh can imagine.

Bloody hell that got a bit grim. I should mention that on top of all of that Calvary is pretty damn funny. Everyone gives their all, particularly Brendon Gleeson who absolutely nails the role to the extent that it's difficult to imagine any other actor hitting the same subdued, intelligent emotional notes as he does here.  The script is dynamite, the casting is top-notch and it's just sonically and visually sumptuous. A delicious treat of a film.


Calvary is on general release from April 11th.

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