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Brendan Gleeson as the good priest in an enigmatic Irish drama

Aug. 18, 2014
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Seated on his side of the claustrophobic confessional booth, Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is ready for the usual bad news—the transgressions of his rural Irish parishioners. But his empathetic face registers concern and consternation at the remarks from the unseen man on the other side of the iron grill. “I was raped by a priest when I was 7 years old—for five years every other day.” Professional help? “Maybe I don’t want to cope or learn how to live with it,” he tells Father James before getting to the point: “There’s no point in killing a bad priest but killing a good one—that would be a shock.”

Calvary by Irish writer-director John Michael McDonagh (The Guard) is structured on suspense. The man in the confessional pledges to kill Father James a week from Sunday, and as the days pass, bad things begin to happen. Father James’ bishop tells him that through a canon law loophole, the threatening remarks were not made under the bonds of confession and could be reported to the police. The enigma of Calvary is that Father James neither reports the threat, which becomes increasingly credible, nor confronts the parishioner who threatened him. As if resigned to fate, or prepared to offer himself as a sacrifice for the sins of his church, Father James seems to trudge toward death with a wary—or is it weary?—shrug.

But then, as the often-witty screenplay reveals soon enough, James is no ordinary Roman Catholic priest. He had been married before his wife’s death precipitated his vows; and his beautiful if troubled daughter from London, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), pops in for a brief visit. “You’re just a little too sharp for this parish,” a local woman tells him, and he’s too humble to embrace the compliment. James is more learned and tolerant than his priestly colleague at the rectory, a twit whom he correctly compares to an accountant in an insurance agency.

Roaming the parish in full black cassock, Father James finds the usual mix of sin and cynicism but amped up by violence and perversity. The cassock is no longer the marker of respect it had been in earlier epochs but has become, after the revelations of rampant pedophilia and the churchly abuse of power in Catholic Ireland, a badge of opprobrium he wears with the stubborn martyrdom of a hair shirt. Father James is a decent man in an often indecent, foolish world. Gleeson endows his character with a beautifully understated performance.


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