John Michael McDonagh has found his very own De Niro in Brendan Gleeson

A priest sits in a confessional shrouded in darkness. He listens as an unseen man describes in graphic terms how, as a child, he was repeatedly raped by another cleric. He tells Brendan Gleeson’s Fr James that, because his attacker is now dead, he will murder him instead in a week’s time on the local beach. “Killing a priest on a Sunday, that’ll be a good one,” he jokes.

So begins John Michael McDonagh’s pitch-black comedy Calvary and from this startling beginning Fr James drifts towards his very own high noon. He spends what could be his final week on earth getting on with his pastoral duties, touring his sparsely populated parish in rural Ireland and catching up with his cartoonish flock, including Chris O’Dowd’s simpleton butcher and Aidan Gillen’s unhinged doctor. To a man and woman they are deeply troubled and each has the potential to be the killer. This is not so much a whodunit as a who-will-do-it, and in facing his personal Calvary, will Fr James be damned or saved?

As with his debut film The Guard, in which Gleeson played a lazy, prostitute-loving policeman, McDonagh peppers proceedings with punchy, coarse exchanges. Think Father Ted via Scorsese or Tarantino.

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There are scenes of drug-taking, discussions about pornography and an insane rent boy charging around. Breaking one of the golden rules of cinema, McDonagh also makes sure things don’t end too well for Fr James’s beloved dog. Some might find all of this too edgy, but others will laugh uproariously (I did). And if you are in the latter camp, you’ll find beneath all the dark comedy a film with plenty of serious and nuanced things to say about life, death and religion.

While the opening scene raises the disturbing topic of the sex abuse scandal, the film is not an assault on the Church. Rather, McDonagh presents us with many sides of the Church’s story in our current life and times. The pain and damage done to individuals by the abuse is not shied away from. Neither is the pervading public perception that the Church is a corrupt institution worthy of scorn. Not only is Fr James told he will pay the ultimate price for sexual abuse committed by someone else, but he also finds his chat with a young girl
interrupted by an angry, accusatory parent, and is subjected to insults about Nazi gold and Freemasons.

And yet even though all of this negativity is directed at Catholicism, at the centre of Calvary is Gleeson’s deeply sympathetic portrayal of a good priest attempting to deal with the madness of the world around him, while also reconciling himself to his threatened imminent demise.

Like the skull at the bottom of Holbein’s famous painting The Ambassadors, which Dylan Moran’s hideous tycoon urinates on at one point, death underscores almost everything in Calvary, and Fr James is haunted by it at every turn. As well as receiving the death threat, he visits a child killer in prison, administers the Last Rites, and counsels his daughter, who recently tried and failed to kill herself. We also learn that his wife’s passing was the trigger that led to his joining the priesthood.

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Amid all of this gloom, Fr James seems like the perfect stoic. He preaches that there is “too much talk of sins and not enough of virtues”, and as he trudges around the windswept, beautifully shot landscapes he takes all the insults – and even the burning down of his church – in his heavy stride. He also appears remarkably calm about the fact he could soon be shot dead. Ultimately, however, we see him as a very human figure, with a breaking point like the rest of us. He fights back against his tormentors in a pub brawl. And, although he tells a young widow that faith must never be driven by a fear of death, as he walks down to the beach in the film’s closing moments, how he will react when faced with his would-be killer remains a tantalising mystery.

Gleeson deserves the highest praise for his portrayal of Fr James. He is hulking, gruff and inscrutable, but also possesses superb comic timing and a remarkable lightness of touch. Support, particularly from Gillen and Kelly Reilly as Fr James’s daughter, is strong. But this is undeniably Gleeson’s film and one he deserves many prizes for. Here’s hoping that, having paired in The Guard and now Calvary, he and McDonagh continue their working relationship long into the future. In Gleeson, McDonagh has found his very own De Niro. albeit an overweight Irish version. He must not let him go.

Four stars

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