Once in a great while, a film proves so profound, funny, devastating, dreamlike and utterly unlike anything else that it leaves you dumbstruck. Which is wonderful, unless you happen to be a reviewer. You're kind of expected to come up with something to say.
Calvary is such a film. It's so good in so many ways that it's difficult even to know where to start. I may as well begin at the beginning, as it's one of the most memorable opening scenes in movie history.
Brendan Gleeson plays Father James, the priest of a small parish in the west of Ireland. The camera briefly studies his face before he slides open the confessional window and is informed by a man only he can see, "I first tasted semen when I was 7 years old." If you're familiar with The Guard, the 2011 kickoff to a trilogy Gleeson is making with writer-director John Michael McDonagh, you'll almost be able to anticipate the pastor's reply.
"That's a startling opening line," he says. Not to make a joke at the confessor's expense, but simply because it's true. A man who has every reason to believe he's heard it all has been taken aback. Gleeson and McDonagh walk a fine line here between light and dark, the humorous and the horrific, as they frequently do. They've gotten startlingly good at it.
The confessor's closing lines are every bit as unsettling. After describing years of abuse at the hands of a priest, he announces, "I'm going to kill you, Father. There's no point in killing a bad priest. I'm going to kill you because you're innocent." The confessor gives Father James a week to prepare himself, invites him to meet on the beach the following Sunday, and disappears back into everyday life.
What does a man of God do in such a situation, in an age when the Church is obsolete at best and culpable at worst? What does it mean to believe, and what place does that belief have in today's world? What, as they say, would Jesus do? The title offers a hint that is, let's face it, foreboding.
What Father James chooses to do is go about his life. He comforts a daughter (Kelly Reilly) who's recently attempted suicide (he came to the priesthood after being widowed). He tussles with his aging dog. He makes the rounds among a collection of locals who are in serious need of saving: a disgraced financier (Dylan Moran), a cokehead doctor (Aiden Gillen), the town tart (Orla O'Rourke), her lover (Isaach De Bankolé) and her husband (Chris O'Dowd). He talks to everyone, it seems, but the authorities.
This is magnificent moviemaking on several levels. The High Noon-reminiscent suspense is only the beginning. Larry Smith's cinematography lends the craggy coastal terrain a haunting timelessness; Patrick Cassidy's score suggests Ennio Morricone mashed up with the sacred works of Bach. And McDonagh's script alternates between the knee-slapping and the soul-searching with a seriousness of purpose beyond the range of all but a handful of filmmakers.
Then, of course, there's Gleeson — one of the world's greatest actors doing perhaps the finest work of his career. He brings to life a man forced to decide whether dying for the sins of others — or being willing to risk doing so — is an idea that retains meaning. The movie offers the most candid consideration of the Catholic Church's scandals to date, and serves as a satisfying corrective to the wishy-washy, forgive-and-forget pabulum espoused by last year's Philomena.
The sins of others. What is a man of God to do about them? That's the question at the heart of Calvary. And the answer, as conceived by McDonagh and realized by his remarkable cast, is enough to restore your faith in the power of cinema.