Santa Cruz Good Times

Sunday
Nov 23rd
Text size
  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

Mass Appeal

fm leadBrendan Gleeson is superb as a pragmatic priest on a journey in ‘Calvary’

What happens in the confessional stays in the confessional. According to Catholic law, any priest who violates the confidentiality of the booth will find himself excommunicated. So if a priest happens to hear something dire after Mass one Sunday—like a death threat, to be carried out in one week—he has no recourse but to spend the next seven days combing through the community, hoping to identify the malcontent and diffuse the situation, or possibly even arm himself in self-defense.

At least, those would be the choices in an ordinary action thriller. But neither the Irish drama, Calvary, nor its writer and director, John Michael McDonagh, can be classified as ordinary. Although much of the action follows the outline above, the film transcends its action, branching out into a poignant, often scathing, and even occasionally blackly humorous meditation on the human condition—at its best and worst. And it mostly succeeds in its grand aims, thanks to a marvelously skilled and subtle performance by the great Brendan Gleeson in one of his best roles as a caring village priest.   

McDonagh previously directed Gleeson and Don Cheadle in the subversively funny Irish cop action comedy, The Guard. The new film deals with more serious issues—abusive priests, heinous financial scammers, death, loss, suicide, despair. Calvary has a harder edge, between the deadpan wisecracks (and there are plenty of those, too), but we forge ahead with the mighty Gleeson—on-screen in nearly every frame—as our guide.

Father James (Gleeson), parish priest of a small village on the rugged Irish seacoast, hears a confession one Sunday morning that includes a death threat. Because the man in the booth was raped repeatedly by a priest as a child, and his tormentor is now dead, he says he is going to retaliate against the church by killing a “good priest”—namely, Father James—the following Sunday. As the days tick down, and Father James tries to decide what to do, he ministers to his flock as best he can.

They are a wayward bunch, from the unfaithful wife (Orla O’Rourke) getting beat up by either her butcher husband (Chris O’Dowd), or her mechanic lover (Isaach De Bankolé), to the filthy rich banker (Dylan Moran) trying to feel “a modicum of guilt” for his part in crashing the economy, to a young cannibalistic serial killer (Domhnall Gleeson) serving a life sentence. Father James also counsels a youth who wants to join the army to meet girls (in a very wry exchange), administers last rites to a car-crash victim at the behest of the coke-snorting doctor (Aidan Gillen), and makes time for a visit from his grown daughter (Kelly Reilly), on the rebound from an unsuccessful suicide attempt.

If it seems like a lot of perversity for one small village, it’s possible to view the story as metaphor for the seven Stations of the Cross on the road to Father James’ own personal Calvary. (Villagers named Veronica and Simon even figure in the plot.) Not that it would ever occur to Father James to compare himself to Christ, but the story structure ultimately plays into McDonagh’s larger themes of sin, virtue, sacrifice and redemption.

Which is not to suggest the film feels like a sermon. A barely recovered alcoholic widower who came late to the priesthood, Father James strives to be of some practical use to his parishioners, not by offering up a bunch of empty platitudes about God’s will or Heaven and Hell, but by providing sensible, pragmatic, realistic advice and practicing tolerance for his flock’s many foibles. Unlike many of the other townsfolk, he never doubts his own faith, but he does worry about his ability to effectively serve his community. It’s because he doesn’t presume to tell anybody what God wants that Gleeson’s flawed Father James is so appealing.

We are in classic McDonagh territory: lush green Irish landscapes, plenty of glib, funny, profane dialogue, and the occasional eruption of sudden, nasty violence. Calvary is not for everyone, but its clever structure, McDonagh’s furious wit, and Gleeson’s world-weary, scruffy warmth make it a journey worth taking.


CALVARY  *** (out of four) With Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Chris O’Dowd, and Aidan Gillen. Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh. A Fox Searchlight release. Rated R. 100 minutes.

Comments (0)Add Comment

Write comment
smaller | bigger

busy
 

Share this on your social networks

Bookmark and Share

Share this

Bookmark and Share

 

Pop Life

The pop-up dining trend is freeing culinary imaginations and creating a guerilla version of event dining around Santa Cruz

 

Over Hills and Plains, Riding a White Horse, Bow and Arrows in Hand

Saturday, early morning, the sun enters and radiates the light of Sagittarius. Three hours later, the Sagittarius new moon (0.07 degrees) occurs. “Let food be sought,” is the personality-building keynote. “Food” means experiences; all kinds, levels and types. It also means real food. Sag’s secret is their love of food. Many, if not musicians, are chefs. Some are both. The energies shift from Scorpio’s deep and transformative waters to the “hills and plains of Sagittarius.” Sag is the rider on a white horse, eyes focused on the mountain peaks of Capricorn (Initiation) ahead. Like Scorpio, Sagittarius is also the “disciple.” Adventure, luck, optimism, joy and the beginnings of gratitude are the hallmarks of Sagittarius. Sag is also one of the signs of silence. The battle lines were drawn in Libra and we were asked to choose where we stood. The Nine Tests were given in Scorpio and we emerged “warriors triumphant.” Now in Sag, we are to be the One-Pointed Disciple, riding over the plains on a white horse, bow and arrows in hand, eyes focused on the Path of Return ahead. Sagittarians are one-pointed (symbol of the arrow). Sag asks, “What is my life’s purpose?” This is their quest, from valleys, plains, meadows and hills, eyes aimed always at the mountaintop. Sag emerges from Scorpio’s deep waters, conflict and tests into the open air. Sag’s quest is humanity’s quest. Sag’s quest, however, is always accompanied by music and good food.

 

The New Tech Nexus

Community leaders in science and technology unite to form web-based networking program

 

Film, Times & Events: Week of November 21

Santa Cruz area movie theaters >
Sign up for Good Times weekly newsletter
Get the latest news, events

RSS Feed Burner

 Subscribe in a reader

Latest Comments

 

Pie Fidelity

A little Thanksgiving help, plus sip and shop locally at the Art, Wine and Gift Bazaar

 

What should be on everyone’s bucket list?

Hang gliding, because you're free as a bird. Jenni, Santa Cruz, Student/Administrative Assistant

 

Soquel Vineyards

Thanksgiving is just around the corner, so it’s time to be thinking about the wine you’re going to serve with that special dinner, be it turkey, ham, a roast, or something vegetarian or vegan.

 

The Kitchen

Chef Santos Majano talks beer-friendly food at Discretion Brewery