2016.42: Calvary (Amazon Prime/VOD)
Calvary seems to be a rather respected film. I’m a bit at odds with that opinion, as I really didn’t think much of it. To me it is far too deliberately oddball for its own good, treating its subject with an irreverence that is questionable. It isn’t as sophisticated as it thinks it is, and is far inferior to the kind of films it aspires to be (I suspect it is aiming at something like a Magnolia or Short Cuts, something like that). Tonally it is all over the place.
The central plotline is more than a little crazy (deliberately so?) – during a routine confession, one of Father James’ parishioners reveals that when he was a child he was repeatedly abused by a priest and that in return said parishioner will kill Father James in seven days on the town beach. The parishioner accepts that Father James is innocent but suggests maybe that’s the point- better a dead good priest than a dead bad one (the abuser has passed away during the years since). Repeatedly during the film we see people moaning about priests and the Catholic church, as if the church and its priests are all guilty by association. Anyway, the central throughline of the film is the passing of those seven days and Father James coming to terms with his destiny on that beach at films end, as if he is atoning for the crimes of that unnamed priest.
The film skirts over some of this twisted logic like it does much everything else, and glosses over it with comic moments and eccentric casting (Dylan Moran, M. Emmet Walsh, Chris O’Dowd playing various oddballs). How is it that Father James is unable to recognize the voice of this parishioner of many years? Why has that parishioner decided to kill him now, what has changed over the years for him to arrive at this course of action? Why doesn’t Father James later obey his superior and call in the police? And who burns down the church later on (the intended killer revealing he didn’t do it)? Why is Father James the focus of the film and not the poor soul who was abused, why doesn’t it examine the abused guys fractured mindset and why he feels he has to kill Father James?
The one redeeming feature of this film is Brendan Gleeson; his acting here is fantastic. He quietly manages to infuse his character Father James with some depth beyond what the unfocused script gives him to work with. Yes, unfocused certainly seems to be the word for this film. Is it a thriller, a character piece, a political piece, or a comedy? Certainly other than Father James, everybody else in the film seems to be plain bat-crazy. Its like something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest or the asylum scenes in Twelve Monkeys. Obviously humour is patently being raised here with such oddball characters, but to what end? To diffuse the thriller aspect, or to minimise upsetting parts of the audience, or to make child abuse palatable?
Is the film a character piece about Father James (if so it fails, despite all Brendan Gleeson’s efforts) or a comedy about people disenfranchised from the church? Is it a piece about the clergy’s failure to atone for and punish those who abused children in their care? Is this film somehow supposed to be responsibly raising that issue as some form of entertainment? Is it patronising? Is it suggesting that everyone who was abused whilst in the care of the church should go out and kill a priest? Of course it isn’t, but why then make a film as a comedy with that as the central plotline? I don’t know. I just didn’t get it.