In any given scene of Calvary something interesting is happening. That may not sound like much, but for films built around themes or structured around tight storytelling, there’s often lulls that fail to contribute to the whole. Instead of trying to weave something impressive, Calvary persists in making every moment witnessed compelling and intriguing. Not everything may feed into the final moments, but it all feels connected to the larger community.
Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is an unusual priest over a small town in Ireland. He’s blunt, at times a bit hot-headed and is crasser than one would expect for a man of the cloth. In other words, the cloth hasn’t smoothed out all his rough edges. One day a man comes into confess that he will murder James in a week because of the rape he endured at the hands of another priest during his youth. As James lives out this week, much the same as any week, this impending threat looms over him.
And while that threat carries a lot of weight through the movie, it’s the characters that make each moment of the film compelling. Intellectual spats with the outspoken atheist Dr. Harte (Aidan Gillen) or conversations of slight encouragement for the depressed Milo (Kilian Scott) are interesting in and of themselves because the characters are each crafted with care and vibrancy that once the excellent cast gets a hold of them, they absolutely shine.
For much of the film, James butts heads with these characters. It’s clear from his trips around town that he cares deeply for the people of this town, but he’s also not afraid to put on the tough love. He has enough self-respect for both himself and others to blow off those mocking his faith with faux confessions of sins they are about to commit and he’s discerning enough to know when to take the situation seriously.
Focusing on these interactions with the characters, the film’s structure becomes a fascinating examination of how a man of faith lives in a world of sin. How can James love and admonish these people at the same time? When must he give them up to their own ways? When does he decide to care and intervene? By living and being with these characters in the same town, inhabiting the same space, the film delves into plenty of these questions by watching the Father’s daily life.
Weaker filmmaking would try to spend to long gazing at that central conflict, pondering the wickedness of the priest that provides the justification for the stranger’s threatening confession. Calvary knows that’s too large a question, James himself admits his inability to answer ever question. Instead the film ponders how those of faith should live when faced with the daily crisis of a deeply broken and often ugly world.
© 2014 James Blake Ewing