Religion is a touchy subject for most folks. Their beliefs are something that they hold close to their heart and it can be difficult for them to look at their religion from an unbiased perspective. Because of this, movies with religion as a central theme often try too hard to appease everybody and often come across as bland and uninteresting. That’s what makes a movie like Calvary so revelatory. In his second feature film, writer/director John Michael McDonagh successfully tackles heavy religious themes and he does so in a unique and intelligent fashion. The film acknowledges that priests are only human and that they are bound to have their own personal demons to wrestle with. McDonagh looks at this weighty issue from all sides and the result is a film that will challenge audiences to think, regardless of their belief systems. With a smart script and a standout performance from Brendan Gleeson, Calvary is a film that you don’t want to let slip under your radar.

One Sunday morning, Father James (Brendan Gleeson) receives a visitor in his confessional. The visitor tells James that he was abused by a priest as a young boy and that he now wants to seek vengeance for the atrocity that was committed upon him. Since the priest that abused the man is now dead, the man tells James that he will kill him instead. The man says that he will kill James in exactly one week, giving him just enough time to put his affairs in order. Living in a small Irish community, James knows exactly who threatened him, but instead of reporting it to the police, James chooses to face the threat head on.

Calvary works as an engaging whodunit, or rather a who-will-do-it, because the crime has not yet been committed. It’s very interesting that Father James knows exactly who threatened him because the audience is left in the dark regarding the man’s identity. Could it be the millionaire who has been abandoned by everyone he loves? Or could it be the atheist doctor who seems to enjoy discussing the pain that others experience? Or could it be any of the other eccentric personalities that populate the town? It’s great to watch Father James interact with all of these individuals, especially since he’s aware that one of them has threatened to murder him. James shares an interesting dialogue exchange with every supporting character in the film and they’re all incredibly interesting conversations that tackle a variety of issues. From a conversation regarding whether people join the army just because they’re allowed to kill people, to a fascinating debate on ownership and meaning in art, every exchange is different and engrossing.

But the majority of the film’s themes are religious in nature and they manage to feel philosophical without resorting to heavy-handedness. Father James is an endearing individual, but he’s certainly not a perfect priest. A sequence towards the end of the film where James goes on a drunken tirade is particularly powerful and Gleeson makes for a protagonist that we can truly care about. Father James’ tale bears many resemblances to the life of Jesus Christ, but these ideas never feel forced. Just like Jesus had 12 disciples, there are 12 supporting characters in the film and one will eventually betray Father James, much like how Judas eventually betrayed Jesus. James, who has done nothing to deserve this threat of death, must then take on the sins of the church as a whole and the sins of the priest who abused a boy so long ago. Outside of horror films, priests usually don’t receive much attention on film, but Gleeson’s Father James is one of the most fully formed fictional priests that I’ve ever seen.

Because this is a very dialogue heavy film, it can feel slow at times, particularly towards the middle of the film. But the conversations that take place and the themes that they bring up are so insightful and engaging that the slow pace hardly matters. I also was able to correctly predict the identity of James’ accuser from the very beginning, but that’s a minor issue in the grand scheme of the entire film. By the time the film’s final moments roll around, it’s clear that this is a story about forgiveness and trying to live a good life with what we’ve been given. Calvary is a very moving picture, one that manages to incorporate intelligent themes and discussions into an already interesting narrative.

Calvary receives 3.5/4

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