Father James (Brendan Gleeson) never knows what he’s going to hear when he slides the panel open in the confessional in his small Irish town.
On this day, a dark declaration prompts him to concede, “Certainly a startling opening line.” The man on the other side of the screen had said he was 7 years old when he was first raped by a now-dead priest and that the assault continued for five years. Now, he plans to kill Father James because there’s no point in killing a bad priest but killing a good one will be a shock.
Starring: Brendan Gleeson.
Rating: R for sexual references, language, brief strong violence and some drug use.
“I’m gonna kill you, Father ... because you’re innocent.” Father James has a week to put his affairs in order in “Calvary,” a title meaning both the place where Christ was crucified and intense questioning or transformation through anguish.
“Calvary,” like its protagonist, is atypical in many ways. The priest found his vocation after the death of his wife and is the father of an adult daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), who recently attempted suicide.
It has a rivulet of black comedy that occasionally comes to the surface as the intensity builds and suspicion moves from one person to the next, like an arrow spinning on a game board but with the highest of stakes.
Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (“The Guard”), it’s both a small-town version of a locked room mystery and an examination of sins, virtues and the role of the Catholic church and its emissaries in locals’ lives. A convicted killer talks about becoming God as he watched the light go out in his victims’ eyes. When the priest objects, the prisoner replies, “God made me, didn’t he? So he understands me.”
As Father James visits, encounters or tries to counsel or caution parishioners, virtually all of the men emerge as possible suspects. Among them: a butcher (Chris O’Dowd) whose openly unfaithful wife (Orla O’Rourke) has turned him into a cuckold; a rich, miserable loner (Dylan Moran); a cold-hearted physician (Aidan Gillen); a transplanted car mechanic (Isaach de Bankole); an elderly American novelist (M. Emmet Walsh); a bartender (Pat Shortt) falling on hard financial times; and a man (Killian Scott) who pines for female companionship.
Mr. Gleeson certainly looks the role, resembling an older, shaggier, authentically Irish version of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s priest in “Doubt.” However, do not mistake this for one of the wave of religious movies such as “Heaven Is for Real” (coincidentally also with Ms. Reilly) or “God’s Not Dead” that made the rounds of theaters earlier this year.
There aren’t any devoted older ladies who tend to the altar linens. Instead, “Calvary” has bite, bile, temptations, nasty asides and assessments, and references to the pedophilia scandal that scorched the church.
It also boasts stunning backdrops, including isolated, wind-swept beaches on the Atlantic Coast and a small mountain called Knocknarea along with a wood-framed church, music-infused pub and spare priestly bedroom.
The premise is diabolical and grim. The questions thorny. The consequences dire. The virtues hard to come by. The symbolism obvious. And the movie powered by Mr. Gleeson as if his soul depended on it.
Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.