Directed by John Michael McDonagh
Opens at the Charles Theater Friday, Aug. 15
The Christian faith teaches that Calvary is the place Jesus Christ was tortured, nailed up onto a cross, and left to die.
Brendan Gleeson (“The Guard,” “In Bruges”) continues to wield his imposing fleshy gravitas as Father James, a kind and dutiful priest in a small travel-brochure picturesque village in Ireland, a country where it appears everyone is a pain in the ass and even more of a burden to the only priest in town, what with their constant confessions and unburdenings of their moral deficiencies on Father James, who is like a garbage can for everyone to dump all their sins, in the Catholic traditions of Guilt and secrecy and forgiveness.
The film opens quick, with Father James in his church’s private confessional booth receiving a confession from a man who has sinned, and has been sinned against, most grievously—in the form of sexual abuse from a Catholic priest—and this man confesses/informs Father James he intends the greatest sin, murder, and that Father James will be his victim, because killing a bad priest is no big deal, but killing a good one will make a statement. The good Father has a week to live.
We don’t know who the confessor is, and this movie does a very good job of distracting us from what could be a crappy murder mystery, trying to figure out who might be the potential killer, because the whole time we might be wondering who’s gonna do in Father James, we are following him around as he is working at his job of being a priest, and we become absorbed in the stories of many of the village’s inhabitants, who are in turns funny, sad, awful, and wonderful. We are observing all kinds of honesty and confessions, not in a confessional, but out and about the village and seaside, which again, is gorgeous and fascinating in its lush greens and ancient weathered landscapes, hills beaten down by time and sadness. But it’s beautiful, seriously, it’s another cast member in the movie and it helps to look at it as you are seeing people be awful and human.
The Gospels depict Jesus being treated horribly in the last week of his life, and Father James is treated low-level badly all the time, mocked and ridiculed for being a good Catholic priest and hated solely for being a Catholic priest in light of all the revelations of years of sexual abuse of children that has been denied by the Catholic church. We all know this, we all suspect every Catholic priest of being a pedophile, we revile this, we revile priests as being Other because of their vow of chastity, since our society tends to loathe people who don’t have sex, possibly more than we loathe people who are overweight, and we go further by thinking their seemingly unnatural state allows us to dehumanize them, and hate them. Father James has a small moment that shows us what he is missing, physically, but it’s not what you might think, it’s an emotional thing. So. Father James is disrespected and insulted, and we learn this is part of the job, and we watch him deal with his own family (he wasn’t always celibate), and counsel people out there in the village on pretty much every sin you can think of, plus negotiate with a few idiots and people who are genuinely bad.
Chris O’Dowd, who we know from comedies such as “Bridesmaids” and HBO’s “Family Tree,” is surprising and deft as a sort of imbecilic butcher with family problems, and seeing Aidan Gillen, currently better known as Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish on HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” on the screen almost sucked us out of the reality of the movie, but he is such a convincingly entertainingly total prick as an atheist doctor at the local hospital that we got right back into the picture. Also just great is Kelly Reilly (“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” “Flight”) as Father James’ sad daughter, and M. Emmet Walsh (“Blood Simple” and a coupla hundred other things), who looks like he’s gonna check out any minute, wow.
This movie is deep, and profound, and rich, and demanding, and as the days pass, the pressure builds and you can feel everything getting heavier and heavier, and you think you know what’s gonna happen, but you don’t. But you do. But you don’t, and you don’t have to be interested or even believe in God or Jesus or Jesus as God to understand and appreciate the human drama being played out, and it’s sad and it’s funny and it’s beautiful and you will be at peace with it in the end.