It’s impossible for an English atheist to understand the impact/stranglehold the Catholic Church had upon Eire until recently when the ceaseless revelations of scandals undermined its authority to the extent that Gay marriage was easily approved in the referendum earlier this year. Peter Mullan’s The Magdelene Sisters (Ire-UK, 2002) had shown the disgusting treatment of young women, who were pregnant out of wedlock, up until the 1980s. John Michael McDonagh’s film (like Mullan he scripted and directed) puts the pedophile priests in its sight and, with a brilliant narrative set up, starts with a ‘confession’ that Father James (the brilliant Brendan Gleeson) will be killed the following Sunday because he is a good man. This, the perpetrator feels, would be a justice of sorts. The small west coast town setting is full of ‘characters’ and James spends the week deciding what to do.
McDonagh’s debut was the well-regarded (though not by me) The Guard (Ire, 2011); Calvary suggests he might be a special talent. The slightly flippant humour that runs throughout (one priest reads, boggle eyed, The God Delusion) might have derailed the seriousness with which the film is intended to be regarded; fortunately it works to relief the ‘heaviness’ of the crimes committed by the clergy. Child abuse is used too often as a ploy to shock; in Calvary the abuse was real and by approaching it tangentially McDonagh offers us powerful insights into the relationship between ordinary people and the Church in the aftermath of the scandals.
Clearly actors, including Chris O’Dowd, Aiden Gillen and Gleeson’s son, Dohmnall in a cameo, are keen to work with McDonagh. Calvary shows us why.