Director: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Kelly Reilly and Pat Shortt
★★★★ (out of five)
“I FIRST tasted semen when I was seven years old,” are the first words of dialogue in John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, as uttered by a disembodied voice to a discombobulated priest in a darkened church confessional.
“Certainly a startling opening line,” the priest responds, voicing the thoughts of the audience. “Is that supposed to be irony?” the disgruntled confessor asks. “I’m sorry,” the priest says, “let’s start again.”
This introductory exchange sets up the narrative style of McDonagh’s movie, fusing serious commentary with bone-dry satire.
McDonagh –a second-generation Irishman raised in central London – draws characters that spend most of the time conventionally acting out the absorbing drama, yet periodically collapse the artifice with deflating self-references.
They offer oblique winks to camera, breaking the fourth wall and waving across to the viewer. It’s a Brechtian, Beckettian, Bunuelian cocktail of forlorn hope, mordant humour and a cold moral vacuum. Yet all-the-while, it urges us not to have sleepless nights.
It’s also excellent, a cleverly-devised story (if a little thin on plot) featuring fine performances from top Irish talent. The superb Brendan Gleeson leads the cast as the embattled Fr James, vicar to an isolated coastal community, who is informed by one of his flock that he will kill him, “a week on Sunday,” in an abused victim’s revenge upon a depraved Catholic Church.
The man who makes this threat is known to Father James, though he remains a mystery to the audience until the climax.
“I’ll give you enough time to put your house in order,” he generously promises. The rest of the movie invites viewers to guess the identity of the killer among the townsfolk they meet, as the good father tends to his “pastoral duties”.