Dark, depressing, soulless, derivative, quirky, devout, biblical, thoughtful, irreverent, smart, strange, anguished, comic, lurid, ironic and damned are only a few of the overused adjectives that have been trotted out over the past week in an effort to describe what may be one of the most significant films of the past decade. All of these labels are, in their own way, accurate. Whether they are true or not is the real question. Because, whatever else "Calvary" is, it is a movie that is essentially defined by its questions: What is the difference between truth and accuracy? Intent and deed? Shame and vice? Guilt and responsibility?
In "Calvary," at least, the difference is alluded to by silence, and the man who attempts to navigate the middle is Father James (played magnificently by Brendan Gleeson). A father as well as a Father --James was a widower before coming to the priesthood late in life in an act his adult daughter calls his “midlife crisis”-- Gleeson’s portrayal of a rural Irish priest goes against the grain of what is expected of an Irish Catholic priest. Overtly old-fashioned --he wears an old-style cassock that gives him the look of an avenging 19th century preacher-- he nevertheless seems far more capable of dealing with the problems of a modern parish than his much younger and very “P.C.” colleague. Superficially contradictory --an ascetic who drives a battered red convertible, a devout and judgmental man who nevertheless has a seemingly endless well of compassion-- Father James is the sort of man whose very existence is like salt in the wounds of post-financial crisis, post (and current) sex-abuse-scandal Ireland.
In a world full of characters more than willing to acknowledge --if not confront-- their own vices and their own corruption and their own tortured histories --Aidan Gillen is magnificent as an agnostic drug-using doctor who takes an almost gleeful pleasure in death, Dylan Moran is even more impressive as a narcissistic businessman likely to escape prosecution for financial misdeeds only because there were too many others to prosecute first-- Father James is the innocent fated to bear the burden of guilt for the group.
But "Calvary" escapes the obvious by confronting preconceived notions head-on. On screen, Sligo is simultaneously as breathtakingly beautiful as a tourist’s postcard, and as ominous as a hangman’s gallows. (Or as ominous as the gardens of Gethsemane.) Despite the big questions, there is an intimate, self-aware and dangerous feeling to this movie. This is a story that might have been a play, or a novel, instead of a movie. This is a story that is, odd as it sounds, very much a story about stories --stories that were hidden for so long that they now fester like open sores, stories that are now told and retold so many times they no longer have the power to shock. And, in the end, that may be the greatest accomplishment of this movie, it has made a very old story shocking. Again.
Worth seeing? Definitely. Important? Yes. Family friendly? Probably not. Shocking? Like blood on snow.
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