email print share on Facebook share on Twitter share on reddit pin on Pinterest

BERLINALE 2014 Panorama Special

Berlinale: Calvary, a surprising and mysterious hybrid film

by 

- After Sundance, Irish director John Michael McDonagh brings his religious whodunit to Berlin

Berlinale: Calvary, a surprising and mysterious hybrid film
Brendan Gleeson and Chris O’Dowd in Calvary

Following The Guard [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: John Michael McDonagh
film profile
]
, Brendan Gleeson again stars in a film directed by Ireland’s John Michael McDonagh, completely swapping genres: a religious mystery about the last week in the life of a priest, Calvary [+see also:
trailer
making of
interview: John Michael McDonagh
film profile
]
may prove unpopular with regular audiences, but this original genre hybrid has every chance of becoming a festival darling. 

(The article continues below - Commercial information)

The story focuses on Father James (Gleeson), and the premise is established from the very first shot: the confession of a believer turns into a death threat. Obscured by the confessional, Father James’ mysterious interlocutor tells him about how he was raped for years by another priest and how much he has suffered. As his abuser is now dead, how ironic would it be to kill Father James, a good priest who has never hurt anyone? The priest is given seven days to settle his affairs, but that will prove complicated, as he is surrounded by strange characters who are determined to turn his last days on Earth into the titular calvary.

In his small congregation, Father James is much more than a priest, and the director entertains us with funny, absurd conversations with his suicidal daughter (Kelly Reilly), a cheated man (Chris O’Dowd), his wife (Orla O’Rourke), her lover (Isaach de Bankolé), the local rich man (Dylan Moran), the good-looking young gentleman (Killian Scott, also starring in ’71 [+see also:
film review
trailer
Q&A: Yann Demange
film profile
]
) who thinks the army may heal his need for aggression, a convicted rapist (Domhnall Gleeson, the lead actor’s son) and so on, in short sketches that test the priest’s wisdom, wit and goodwill, yet shed no light on the threatening confessor.

Faith is called into question several times as day after day Father James finds himself closer to the fateful Sunday when he expects to be killed. The pressure mounts, but with so many distractions, the protagonist finds a way to sail on the calmer waters hinted at by the film’s initial quotation by Saint Augustine (“Do not despair: one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume: one of the thieves was damned.”), which suggests the priest’s challenges mirror the passions of Jesus.

Even if the religious subtext and the cheeky conversations may prove difficult to swallow in the same spoonful by some viewers, and even if some jokes fall flat and some moments seem mere distractions from the fate that awaits Father James, Calvary is always unpredictable, fresh and thought-provoking. The whodunit part of the script fails to keep the viewer curious about the identity of the possible murderer, but this shortcoming is miniscule when you consider Gleeson’s amazing performance. Humble but witty, forgiving but exigent, Father James fills every frame not with his rotund figure, but with an amazing evolution, subtly brought to life by a never-faltering Brendan Gleeson.

Did you enjoy reading this article? Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive more stories like this directly in your inbox.