Alfred Hitchcock would have loved the opening minutes of John Michael McDonagh’s “Calvary.”
A weary and quietly virtuous Irish priest is hearing confession. A man’s disembodied hoarse voice tells the priest that long ago another priest began molesting him when he was a boy of 7 and continued doing it for years afterward.
And now, in revenge, he’s going to kill a priest. But, it seems, he has worked out the problem quite thoroughly in his moral calculus: “There’s no point in killing a bad priest. But killing a good one, that would be a shock. I’m going to kill you, Father.”
Father James has a week. And then his Sunday rendezvous with death on the beach.
The only face we see during all this is the massive face of Father James, played by one of the great actors in movies, Brendan Gleeson, with his elephantine ears and a painful near-wince in his eyes. The confessor then exits the confessional without our ever seeing his face.
So the movie is, in part, a whodunit. And also a “What’s he going to do?”
The rest of McDonagh’s “Calvary” (named after the hill on which Christ was crucified, also commonly known as Golgotha) is a portrait of a town contentedly seething with its own misdemeanors, corruptions and worse.
Father James wags his head in sorrow over the things he has to listen to in confession. And his fellow priest in this small parish is a model of no integrity whatsoever that Father James can see.
We learn about the parishioner regularly cuckolding her husband. Father James visits her, sees from her blackened eye that someone is beating her and advises fidelity. Before the film is over, we’ll see the two men – husband and wife’s new lover – having pints together at the local pub.
’Tis a beautiful part of Ireland they live in, indeed, indeed. The beaches and shores are gorgeous.
And Father James, who became a priest only after marrying and having a child, has a lovely daughter named Fiona who arrives home with new telltale bandages on her wrists. She’s played by Kelly Reilly, and every scene with her and Gleeson is loving and sensitive.
There’s a dying old man the priest visits played by M. Emmet Walsh. He’s looking back on his life in sorrow and listening to Hoagy Carmichael. Father James even gives him the gun he requests.
The town’s wealthy aristocrat urinates on priceless paintings and talks of his experience with cannibalism: “I told them it tasted like pheasant. A bit gamey.”
Nobody has a bad word to say about Father James, though. There’s no reason why they should. He’s what a priest should be – including mentally sharper than his parishioners. For all that, though, we wonder throughout the film about his rendezvous with destiny as we watch him minister to a flock which clearly doesn’t deserve him.
The very title of the film tells you that its symbolic drama – for all its brilliant premise – is being overstated.
But the making of the film – along with all the actors playing parishioners – is the lead performance by one of the very best in movies, Gleeson, in a role requiring him to be radiant with empathy and grace.
He proves in “Calvary” that, yes, he can do that, too.
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, M. Emmet Walsh.
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Running time: 100 minutes
Rating: R for sexual references, violence and drugs.
The Lowdown: A priest in a small Irish town hears a death threat in the confessional.