Calvary – Take a pew for John Michael McDonagh’s dark comedic take on religion

The first line of John Michael McDonagh’s latest film (“I first tasted semen when I was seven years old”) sets the tone for what’s to come: bleak, dramatic and oddly humorous. At first glance Calvary (2014) is a murder mystery, albeit a murder that hasn’t yet been committed. The loyal and supportive priest Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) serves a small and quiet Irish town, despite the increasing number of setbacks he faces on a daily basis in the form of distrustful locals and mounting prejudice against the Catholic Church. Things get even more difficult for him when he is threatened in the confessional booth by an unknown parishioner (who utters that disturbing first line) who says he will kill him by the end of the week. Yet this is just scratching the surface. If you look deeper McDonagh’s story is a poignant and unflinching look at our modern-day society’s relationship with religion and how it has changed in recent years…for better or worse.

Calvary (2014)

McDonagh’s first film, The Guard (2011), proved him to be a confident director and a sharp writer in what was a deathly funny tale. Here with Calvary though McDonagh heads into much more complex and darker territory, the writer-director using his keen eye to look into the trickier subject of religion. Through the character of Father Lavelle, McDonagh shows how views on religion and faith have changed in recent years in a society in which the Church is becoming increasingly marginalised. Father Lavelle visits and is visited by a varying cast of characters, all with their different takes on faith (highlights being the superb Aidan Gillen as an atheist doctor, Dylan Moran as a vile and wealthy banker and Killian Scott as a confused young man who wants to join the Army). Few are willing to listen to his words, most are cynical and a lot want nothing to do with him, McDonagh showing how the residents both use religion when it suits them, but then reject it at other times. However McDonagh never lectures the viewer on any of these diverse points. He merely uses his superbly perceptive script to create an informed discussion of both sides of the argument, leaving the viewer to make their own decision.

Brendan Gleeson and Aidan Gillen in Calvary

That Calvary never becomes dull, even with this profound investigation of religion at its heart, is testament to McDonagh’s writing, as well as a use of dark comedy which he similarly used throughout The Guard. Unlike his previous film though the humour here has become funnier and more refined, as well as more macabre, perhaps because it exists alongside such a difficult subject matter. McDonagh’s perfect use of this dark humour means that not only is Calvary highly entertaining to watch, it also makes it more memorable, in turn further cementing McDonagh’s incisive ideas on religion in your mind long after you’ve seen it.

Despite this use of comedy though McDonagh knows when to step back from it and let the emotions of certain scenes play out. In fact for all its very funny moments, Calvary is incredibly moving at times. This is again due to the heavy subject matter but it is also in part down to Brendan Gleeson’s outstanding performance as Father Lavelle, a role that is a lot different to the corrupt and foul-mouthed policeman Gleeson played in McDonagh’s The Guard. Here Gleeson’s performance is full of pathos, his face visibly becoming more wounded and anguished as Lavelle tries not to break under the mounting pressures and prejudiced views of others, as well as the fact that he may be dead within the week. The exchanges between Lavelle and his visiting daughter (Kelly Reilly – also excellent), who he had before he joined the Church, are also poignant and touching, as is a beautiful scene featuring Gleeson’s own son Domhnall Gleeson as a young boy in prison. Again Gleeson’s performance makes these moments all the more convincing and heartbreaking, as does McDonagh’s confidence to let the bleakness come out in full at these times.

Father Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) with his daughter (Kelly Reilly)

Stunning landscape shots (such as vast coastlines) show the beauty of the Irish vistas. Yet they also show the cold, greyness of the land, McDonagh’s direction forever hinting at the underlying threat that pervades Father Lavelle’s life, his line of work and the town itself. It also creates an overall ominous and tense tone to the film and, similar to The Guard, a sort of Western film feeling to it, albeit with a pleasing Irish twist. Ignore the mystery aspect to the tale and you will see that Calvary is in actuality a powerful and thought-provoking look at religion through McDonagh’s darkly comic lens, with a gut punch ending that will leave you reeling. His second feature film proves that not only is he a superb writer-director, but also that McDonagh and Gleeson are one hell of a partnership, one which will hopefully last for many films to come.

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~ by square-eyed-geek on July 25, 2014.

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