Pity the poor parish priest. Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is just trying to live a godly life and is encouraging his flock to do the same, but they keep “dragging you down into the muck,” as a fellow man of the cloth puts it.
The rumored town slut openly flirts with him. Adulterers meet for their rendezvous right in front of him. He lives in a single bare room, but he is forced to watch as a filthy rich parishioner defaces an almost priceless Hans Holbein painting.
Even worse, one of them declares he’s going to murder Father James. “Sunday week, let’s say.”
“Calvary,” as you might have gathered, is a film unlike any other in the cineplex right now. It’s not just its surprisingly seamless shifts from corrosive comedy to deathly drama, and back again. It’s the sensitivity and insight with which it deals with the very serious questions its characters confront — and force the audience to face.
The “whiskey priest” has been a familiar trope since Graham Greene coined the term, referring to the anti-hero of his 1940 masterpiece “The Power and the Glory.” Writer-director John Michael McDonagh surprises us by making his Catholic cleric a thoroughly good man. Father James does have a daughter, Fiona (a delightful Kelly Reilly), but not from any illicit tryst — he found his vocation after his wife died. He lives plainly, he hasn’t touched the bottle in years, and he goes out of his way to help his parishioners find their way.
That’s exactly why one of them wants to kill him. The mystery man — Father James recognizes his voice in the confessional, but the audience is left to guess his identity — was an innocent victim of a pedophilic priest years ago. So in revenge, he will murder an innocent of that profession. Father James has a week to get his papers in order. And think of something to say to his would-be killer: The declaration in the confessional renders him quite speechless.
Who might the madman be? There is no shortage of possibilities in this small town in Ireland’s County Sligo. There’s the atheist doctor (Aidan Gillen), the angry publican (Pat Shortt), the sexually frustrated youngster (Killian Scott).
All are played to perfection, but two suspects really shine: Chris O’Dowd (so memorable as the love interest in “Bridesmaids”) is the butcher Jack, married to the flirtatious Veronica (a luminous Orla O’Rourke), who’s having an affair with foreigner Simon (Isaach De Bankole, who was given more to do in “The Limits of Control”). He doesn’t know what to do with his wayward wife — “I think she’s bipolar. Or lactose intolerant. One of the two.” But then, it doesn’t seem like he really cares. Dylan Moran (who starred in and co-wrote the hilarious British sitcom “Black Books”) is the rich Michael Fitzgerald, whose constantly repeated refrain about everything from the Holbein painting to a pen is, “It’s really expensive.”
Mr. McDonagh and Mr. Gleeson previously collaborated on the director’s debut, “The Guard,” a seriously black comedy and one of 2011’s best films. There are plenty of side-splitting lines in “Calvary,” too, but here Mr. McDonagh makes room for more reflection. Just about everywhere Father James goes, he’s treated to some anti-Catholic comment, sometimes referencing monetary corruption but more often about the moral corruption that’s led one of the townsmen to lunacy.
Father James can’t — and doesn’t — deny some of the charges against the church. But “Calvary” ends up a deeply religious film nonetheless. The thoughtful script is aided here by the great actor who utters much of it. Mr. Gleeson turns what in lesser hands might have been a cardboard cutout into a painfully real man.
“You have to detach yourself,” Father James tells the fellow priest who complains that the parishioners bring him down. Father James discovers that attitude was wrong.
Detachment isn’t a virtue. It’s certainly something impossible to feel while watching this unexpectedly complicated comedy.
★ ★ ★ ½