To Tell the Truth

To Tell the Truth

Brendan Gleeson shines in ‘Calvary,’ a story of revenge and redemption in the wake of sex scandals involving priests

By Carl Kozlowski 08/07/2014

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It must be every priest’s worst nightmare: listening to anonymous, unseen people share their darkest secrets and sins and then hearing a threat made through the screen in the confessional.


In “Calvary,” small-town Irish priest Father James finds himself in just that situation when a mystery man tells him in horrifying detail about the sexual abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of another priest. The distraught man wants to kill Father James as revenge since the offending priest is long dead. He reasons the world would pay more attention by the killing of an innocent clergyman. 


 The man tells Father James to meet him on the town beach in seven days to face his fate, and “Calvary” is the stark yet occasionally darkly humorous depiction of that fateful week of waiting during which the priest must face challenges from all manner of friends and family members. 


Father James (masterfully played by Brendan Gleeson) joined the clergy in mid-life after his wife died, leaving his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) resentful and feeling abandoned. Even as the priest buys a gun for self-defense from a writer (M. Emmett Walsh) who sells it to him illicitly, Fiona comes to visit. Here he must help his daughter cope with bipolar depression and the fact that a lover he doesn’t know has hit her. 


Father James confronts the man he believes is responsible for hitting his daughter, stirring up tension with him, but he also faces an unusual visit from his daughter’s ex-husband (Chris O’Dowd), who seems friendly but then scoffs at him for being a priest and for the crimes of those who abused children. 


Also darkening his world is the town police chief, who secretly uses a gay prostitute who repeatedly taunts Father James about the fact that he (the prostitute) was sexually abused as a boy. An atheistic doctor tells Father James a horrible true story about a child who was left helpless by botched surgery, tormenting the priest with the idea of why God would allow such suffering to exist. 


Father James starts to drink to excess and loses his temper in nearly dangerous fashion. But as the days pass, he rallies his courage and faith and resolutely makes one nobly right and forgiving decision after another on his way to the showdown. 


 “Calvary” is strong stuff, with depictions of faith and loss and good and evil that leave plenty for audiences to think about. Through it all, its central character is shown as fighting for moral justice and to help others find forgiveness in order for them to regain their dignity, although some accept these gifts, and some reject them. 


The movie squarely deals with the consequences of the Catholic Church’s sexual-abuse scandals, showing the terrible psychological devastation of the victims. But rather than either sweeping away the problem in favor of a positive portrait of Father James, or attacking the Church as inherently evil, the film finds a balance that is still alternately disturbing and hopeful.  


Ultimately, this unflinching portrayal offers a truly stirring parallel to the desperate last walk of Jesus to His own self-sacrifice on the cross at Calvary. Writer-director John Michael McDonagh, who previously teamed with Gleeson on the black comedy “The Guard” in 2012, may depict a world with sin in it, but he does so showing that the wages of sin are depression and misery. He depicts those who taunt the priest with their bad behavior and cruel comments all winding up being miserable, while those who strive for redemption or forgiveness attaining some level of happiness.


Throughout Gleeson delivers an incredibly strong performance that fully deserves Oscar consideration, as does the film. Like Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” this is a movie that deals with harsh subjects and imagery, but one that needs to do so as it travels its troubled path to redemption.


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