Irish cinema. Yes, it exists, and yes it’s fantastic. It’s not nearly as renowned as it should be, but I’m telling you that in my experience Ireland’s best are right up there with the films of Denmark and Hungary, two other nations with surprisingly lesser known film industries (Denmark, seriously, if you haven’t gotten in there, get in there! Danish films are awesome). It would be much more difficult to include Ireland in this category without the film Calvary, written and directed by John Michael McDonagh.
I mentioned a potential post involving John Michael back when I blogged about his brother’s work on In Bruges. It seems that both brothers have a flair for the sarcastic, writing dark comedies, and that they both enjoy Brendan Glesson (which anybody with half a brain should understand). Gleeson takes the lead in both films, but it is in Calvary where he really shines. His performance is one of my favourite of all time – I mean in any film I have ever seen. The control that Gleeson displays and his complete understanding of his character and how essential his interactions with the variety of other personalities in the small Irish town are, allow the audience to feel as though we have visited this rather troubled place for a very dramatic week in its history.
From the very first line of the film, “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old,” McDonagh is letting the audience know that they are about to venture down a dark path with his characters, and that this beautiful town may have a lot of ugly going on in it that has yet to be uncovered. The startling opening line, (which Father James responds to hilariously) is followed by the confessor telling the Father that in a week he will be dead. The whole opening exchange is as funny as it is disturbing (though probably more disturbing) and sets the course for the rest of the film to be the same. From here on the writing gets darker and darker, funnier and funnier. Even when Father James’ daughter visits fresh off of a suicide attempt, she, her father, and some of the other townspeople make cracks about her depressed state. Jokes about infidelity, domestic abuse, and murder are commonplace and give the town what you might call ‘personality’, or what you might call a very unsettling aura. The discomfort that Father James feels throughout the film is echoed by the audience through McDonagh’s masterful directorial control.
The town carries on their religious duties in a sort of ‘going through the motions’ kind of way. Father James is frustrated with the people in the town and their lack of effort, so he does what he can when he can, always providing council to those who need it, even when most who he tries to help resent him for it. The loss of belief in the Catholic faith is at the heart of McDonagh’s film, and is exhibited by every character, Father James included. He is not without flaws himself, though it is precisely because he is a “good priest” that the person who threatens him has chosen him, because “There’s no point in killing a bad priest […] They wouldn’t know what to make of that.”
I for one, believe that the combination of humour and existentialist inquiry works wonderfully, almost making the philosophy of the film more accessible or easier to decipher. It certainly leads to a more bleak film, but sometimes it is only when we look at something (even our own existence) from every angle, even a sarcastic one, that we truly start to understand it, or at least learn something about it. You’ll have to tell me what you learn from Calvary, and please do, for after every time I watch this film I have a new set of questions.
McDonagh’s shot choices are near perfect in this film. As the majority of the film involves Father James speaking with other members of the town, there is a need for variety to avoid putting the audience to sleep. The way McDonagh solves that problem is to arrange different shot types for each interaction. The way Father James is framed when he speaks to his daughter, for example, is much different than he is framed when he speaks to Father Leary, his absent-minded counterpart, or to Michael Fitzgerald, a rich man who takes a liking to bragging about his wealth and (literally) urinating on expensive art to show that he can. The aerial shots of the Irish country are amazingly beautiful and while they serve a purpose for breaking up scenes, they also force us to consider that on top of this beautiful landscape, terribly ugly things are happening.
When the film is finished, you will have questions about religion, humanity, morality, family, and probably much more. This film, though critically acclaimed, has strangely fallen off many people’s radar for no good reason. If you’re ready for a movie that you will always remember, track this one down and give it a watch.
You’ve Touched Me in a Good Way