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In The Irish Film 'Calvary,' A Priest's Crisis Of Faith Is Weirdly Jokey


This is FRESH AIR. In the new movie "Calvary" Brendan Gleeson plays an Irish village priest who must eventually face off against a killer. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: "Cavalry" is a weirdly jokey Irish movie about a priest, Father James Lavelle played by Brendan Gleeson, who spends what might be the last week of his life with his faith under bitter constant assault. How is that faith tested? Let me enumerate the ways in which religious order is flouted. The movie begins with Lavelle hearing a confession from an unseen man who says that as a 5-year-old he was raped by a priest, now dead. And that he'll take revenge by killing a, quote, "good priest," meaning Lavelle, in a weeks time. After that we meet Kelly Reilly as Lavelle's daughter. You see, Lavelle entered the church when his wife died, who's recently cut her wrists, followed by an insultingly atheist doctor, an unapologetic, promiscuous married congregant, the foulmouthed African mechanic who's sleeping with her and later a French woman whose husband has just been killed by a drunk driver and a rapist murderer who taunts Lavelle with the idea that while killing he'd felt like God. Add the dull-witted assistant priest, the derisive rich man, the preening shirtless gay hustler, the nerd who's feeling rage against women for not paying attention to him, the elderly American writer who'd like a gun to hasten his own death and it's a wonder father Lavelle doesn't rip off his collar and flee. And then someone sets fire to the church. Crisis of faith movies are often painfully solemn, even Ingmar Bergmaneske, but a writer-director John Michael McDonagh evidently came of age watching too many episodes of "Twin Peaks." "Calvary" is crammed with strange, over-the-top performances - unmodulated, in different keys - the characters framed with the bluntness of a carnival barker showing off his freaks. Those shots are in contrast to the Irish coastal vistas - craggy, primordial, mythic. It's meant to be a haunting combination. And I have colleagues who found it just that. They were devastated by a film that acknowledges the Catholic Church's crimes and what's portrayed as it's increasing irrelevance in modern society. Yet affirms in the end the overriding importance of faith. I found "Calvary" on the other hand excruciatingly obvious and inept. McDonagh is a novice filmmaker and he's fond of arch dialogue that calls attention to the character's sense of being characters. In one scene, the atheistic doctor actually refers to himself as, quote, "the atheistic doctor, a cliche part to play," unquote. So why then does he play it? Good actors like Chris O'Dowd, Dylan Moran and Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan Gleeson's son, look like actors, not human beings. But the elder Gleeson is alive - broodingly, messily alive. Carrying "Calvary" from first frame to it's almost last. He's grizzled and ginger-haired, his face prodigiously lined with heavy, sagging features and pieties don't fall easily from his mouth. On a visit to the rich man played by Dylan Moran who's bent on showing off his expensive paintings, Gleeson's Lavelle doesn't pander or conceal his contempt.


DYLAN MORAN: (As Michael Fitzgerald) I love this one. Really expensive. Not quite sure what it's supposed to mean though.

BRENDAN GLEESON: (As Father James) Why does it have to mean anything?

MORAN: (As Michael Fitzgerald) Everything has to mean something. Otherwise, what's the point? Of course I don't have to know what it means. I own it that's enough.

GLEESON: (As Father James) That's all that matters? Ownership? Possession?

MORAN: (As Michael Fitzgerald) How much land does the church own? How much gold?

GLEESON: (As Father James) That's the church. That's not me.

MORAN: (As Michael Fitzgerald) You are a representative of the church, are you not?

GLEESON: (As Father James) If you say so.

MORAN: (As Michael Fitzgerald) I do say so, yeah. I think you're very judgmental man, Father.

GLEESON: (As Father James) Yes, I am. But I try not to be.

MORAN: (As Michael Fitzgerald) You think I don't have any feelings? You think I don't care about anything?

GLEESON: (As Father James) I think you don't want to do penance at all. I think you asked me here to make fun of me. But when you do want to do penance sincerely you can give me a call at any time and I'll try my best to help you.

EDELSTEIN: Lavelle runs away in horror when the man pulls down this masterpiece and urinates on it. This priest radiates helplessness. He comes up with no answer for his daughter's misery - except to affirm his love. And these scenes are "Calvary's" plainest and most effecting. Lavelle also has no answer for his would-be killer whose identity he tells a bishop he knows. So why he doesn't seek the guy out for a conversation before their momentous date on the beach a week after the threat is a mystery. It's one of those absurd plot turns a writer asks for license to execute. And sometimes gets away with. Sometimes, not this time. I do admire McDonagh's determination to get something of the Irish-antic spirit into material so often handled airlessly. But apart from Gleeson, and that's a big apart from because he's very impressive, "Calvary" has the authenticity of a fringe-theater script, laboring to be offbeat.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.