Father James Lavelle is the priest of a small town in County Sligo. One day, while taking confession, a man tells Lavelle of how he was raped by a priest numerous times from the age of 11. The Father’s attempts to deal with him are futile because the man isn’t looking for absolution from his sins, rather he is there to make a statement. No one cared about his plight during his childhood or since. He was ignored by the Church. Since the priest who committed the sex crimes has died, the man believes the only way to bring attention to his sufferings is by killing another priest, in particular, a good priest like Father Lavelle. He tells Lavelle he has a week to get his affairs in order. He intends to carry out the execution the next Sunday.
From this point, the story counts down until the confrontation. At first, Lavelle thinks he might know the man from his voice, but as the days pass he becomes less certain. He reports the threat to the police. He worries about what will happen and imagines how he might talk the man out his plan when they meet face to face. The audience is left to sort through the potential suspects of this future murder. We become acquainted with the townsfolk and are given a profusion of clues and red herrings. The parishioners are an unsettled group. Almost everyone has an axe to grind. The town’s atheist doctor (Aidan Gillen) delights in poking at the Father with a metaphorical stick, but none of the believers seems to care too much for the Catholic Church, either.
CALVARY is director John Michael McDonagh take on the state of contemporary Ireland. It is an impassioned film that attempts to portray the depth of disillusionment with the Catholic Church after the numerous investigations into child sexual abuse crimes by priests and nuns. The transferring of known abusers to new parishes, and the years of denials of wrongdoing, has substantially damaged the public’s trust in the formerly revered institution. In the movie, it seems all the townspeople have negative things to say to Lavelle; to them, he is the representative of an organisation that has not yet answered for its sins. Does the Church have any moral authority of any kind, anymore? This is the big question that Lavelle struggles with as Sunday approaches. McDonagh’s last feature was the critical hit, THE GUARD. It also had things to say about Ireland, but it used comedy and satire to make its points. CALVARY is different in that it’s a drama with comedic moments. It is an angrier film, that exists to deliver a stinging rebuke to the Church and its attempts to silence the victims of clerical sexual abuse of children. The other institutions of the land don’t escape McDonagh’s attentions, either.
Brendan Gleeson is powerful as Father Levelle. He plays a good man who thinks he can make a difference to the world. He has come by this idea through the hard knocks of his former life. The rest of the cast is also top notch. The excellent cinematography reveals the wild beauty of the landscape that serves as the main release from the tension of the story. Although the script loses some steam towards the end, McDonagh has crafted a serious film that packs a hefty emotional punch.