I looked up the word after watching the film, expecting it to be some kind of unfamiliar religious term, but Calvary is actually a name of a place, specifically a hill near Jerusalem on which Jesus was crucified (also called Golgotha, a name I was much more familiar with). And there is in fact a blatant parallel between the events of the film and its main character, a Catholic priest in a remote corner of Ireland, and the story of Jesus, which only really clicked into place once I learned the meaning of the movie’s title.
Calvary is about a week in the life of Father James (Brendan Gleeson), which starts in a dramatic fashion: during what at first looks like a regular confession on Sunday, a man we cannot see but who Father James knows well describes the horrible sexual abuse he had suffered at the hands of a priest as a child. He is now hellbent on revenge, but he sees no point in executing his abuser (who’s dead anyway), or a guilty priest – he wants to kill a “good”, innocent priest, and Father James has been selected to take the fall for the sins of the church, just down the beach in a week’s time.
Father James might know his would-be-killer, but the viewer doesn’t and is invited to make guesses as the week unfolds and we meet the local folk, a troubled and/or immoral bunch steeped in anger and disappointment: a fellow priest who Father James judges to be insipid and without integrity; a butcher who might or might not be a wife-beater; a wealthy man without a moral scruple; a monstrously cynical atheist doctor; a resentful barkeeper and so on. There’s also a visit from Father James’ daughter, who was born before he joined priesthood, and who is recovering from an unsuccessful suicide attempt.
Gleeson’s sharp, intelligent, compassionate performance is the beating heart of the film, and he’s surrounded by a host of richly drawn characters, not to mention the bleak, rugged natural beauty of the Irish coast. At some point, I more or less forgot about the whole detective element of the story, and the movie became more about spending time with an incredibly compelling character and getting immersed into his life and world. It’s a complex portrayal of a moral person in an amoral world who is nevertheless not a perfect saint, with the moments of rage, exasperation, despair and judgemental attitude. It’s also mixed on Father James’ detached quality: on one hand a degree of distance is necessary in his role, yet it also gets challenged through the examination of his relationship with his daughter, and then in the devastating final scene, which in hindsight could only have happened the way it did. An unsettling but worthwhile viewing.