News Column

In 'Calvary,' Gleeson bears a heavy burden

August 1, 2014

Calvary offers a fascinating look at contemporary attitudes toward the priesthood and Catholicism, as well as an impeccable lead performance by Brendan Gleeson and darkly sharp wit.

Gleeson is a masterful actor whose roles include key parts in The Guard and In Bruges.His portrait of Father James, an Irishman who found his vocation late in life, is brilliant in its blend of compassion, weariness, humility and faith.

Set in a starkly picturesque fishing village in Ireland, this comic drama is worth seeing if only for Gleeson's soulful portrayal. Calvary also is profoundly compelling for the light it shines on how public attitudes have changed toward the clergy in the wake of sex-abuse scandals.

A multilayered and compelling film, Calvary explores forgiveness, revenge, faith and the loss of belief. But it trips up slightly with its broad characterizations. A couple of supporting characters come off as caricatures, and one, a male prostitute, seems to have wandered in from another movie.

But the point is clear: Father James' parishioners are flawed and wounded. He is non-judgmental and understands he must absorb local Catholics' collective anger and sense of betrayal.

Writer/director John Michael McDonagh also directed 2011'sThe Guard, a raucous action comedy. He also is the brother of playwright/filmmaker Martin McDonagh, whose films include In Bruges. And on the subject of family ties, Gleeson's son Domhnall plays an immature, conflicted priest in this film.

Calvary opens with Father James hearing the confession of a sexual abuse victim who plans to kill a priest. "No point in killing a bad priest," the anguished man says. "I'm going to kill you because you're innocent." We don't learn until the end the identity of this would-be killer.

Consequently, Calvary is simultaneously a mystery, a portrait of a complex spiritual man and a commentary on attitudes toward clergy. It works on all those levels, but as a sketch of small-town life it's less effective.

A subplot involving Father James' troubled adult daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), is moving in its emotional complexity. He is not only a spiritual father, he's also a biological parent who must grapple with a dual role.

The climactic face-off, with its revelations of detachment and indifference, will leave viewers shaken. An ethical clergyman is vilified for the evil done by his brethren, and audiences are left to ponder and sort out the mess.

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Source: USA Today

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