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Film Review: Calvary (2014)

Calvary is a grim story about a weary Catholic priest named Father James (Brendan Gleeson) who receives a death threat, yet continues to shepherd his wayward community in his small Irish town. His suicidal daughter (Kelly Reilly) comes to visit him for a short time and the good priest tries to connect with and guide her and the rest of his parishioners—a ragtag group of sinners that includes a rich businessman (Dylan Moran), a cheating wife (Orla O’Rourke), a socially inept youth (Killian Scott), an atheist doctor (Aiden Gillen), and a disturbed butcher (Chris O’Dowd). However, Father James wrestles with his own personal demons and dilemmas while also bearing the brunt of public prejudice and cynicism against the Church with its not-so-distant history of sexual abuse of children.

Writer and director John Michael McDonagh deals with the dark and light side of spirituality and the Catholic Church in a complex way, leaving many issues unresolved and allowing Gleeson’s character to really struggle with the hardened, and occasionally criminal, souls around him. Although he is ultimately a good man, Father James has many faults (namely apparent apathy, alcoholism, and rage) and his search for answers and solutions yields depressingly very little for himself and his congregation. Gleeson does magnificent work with this complicated character at his wit’s end. However, most of the townspeople are written as pretty one-note and extreme caricatures. The rich businessman struggles with his meaningless riches; the cheating wife flaunts her sexual promiscuity in front of everyone; and the atheist doctor revels in death and pain. They challenge and mock Father James relentlessly, yet they are also brutally honest around him. The film is mostly made up of intimate interactions between two or three people, intercut with breathtaking shots of the Irish coastline, which lends a sparse artfulness to Calvary. This is a film that is sure to spark conversation.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 en plein air paintings of the beach

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