Will Father Lavelle die for our sins?
That’s the only question that matters in “Calvary,” the latest parable of Irish faith and the violent foibles of humanity from Irish playwright and filmmaker John Michael McDonagh.
He’s cast his muse, Brendan Gleeson, as the priest in an Irish coastal village, a “good man” whom the locals treat with varying degrees of disbelief and comical contempt. He knows the sins of one and all, from the confessional. But they know the sins of the Catholic priesthood, as at least one unseen confessor lets him know.
This fellow was molested as a choir boy, and not by Father James Lavelle. He’s going to kill the Good Father next Sunday, because “there’s no point in killing a BAD priest.” No one will remember that.
“Make your peace with God,” Lavelle is warned.
But the priest shows just how good he actually is, maintaining his calm, keeping his search for legal/moral loopholes in “the inviability of a confessional” to himself.
The father is a man of his flock, sympathetic to “the mess people make of their lives” even though they insult him at the pub where he has a nip or on the street when he encounters them.
There’s the laughing, sneering wanton woman (Orla O’Rourke) who cheats and cheats, and whose husband (Chris O’Dowd of “Bridesmaids”) beats her; the insufferable rich drunk (Dylan Moran) who looks down on the priest even as he drinks to forget his guilty financial misbehavior.
M. Emmett Walsh is the retiring American writer and man most accepting of the priest. And Kelly Reilly is Father Lavelle’s troubled adult daughter, who reminds us the best priests are often men who found the calling after lives that included a different career, a wife and children.
“Not everyone can carry the weight of the world,” we’re reminded, but McDonagh is able to suggest that some people can, just by putting the great Gleeson in an old-fashioned cassock. Gleeson is so subtle that rare is the moment when we see any fear, disappointment or exhaustion during this pious man’s week of “trials” by those in his flock.
There’s wit to the insults, which Father Lavelle both receives and delivers, since there’s a daft young assistant priest (David Wilmot) whom the older, wiser man has no patience for.
And there’s a ticking clock, the days winding down to the priest’s appointment with his would-be executioner.
“Calvary” is a compact and biting tale of a righteous man being tested by his faith, his peers and his predicament. And Gleeson, paired up, in scene after scene, with wonderful co-stars (look for his moment with his son Domhnall Gleeson of “About Time”), proves once again that there are no writers for the screen like the Irish brothers John Michael and Martin (“In Bruges”) McDonagh, and no muse for them both like the redheaded marvel that is Brendan Gleeson.