Father James (Brendan Gleeson, right) and his daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), in Calvary (Fox Searchlight Pictures)



According to Christian doctrine, Calvary is where Jesus died for our sins.

By naming his new film Calvary, writer-director John Michael McDonagh is suggesting a dark metaphor: Father James (Brendan Gleeson), an Irish Catholic priest, is being called on to die for the sins of others.

Specifically, for the sins of the Catholic Church.

The first scene finds James in the confessional booth opposite a man who tells him that as a boy he spent five years being raped by a priest. James asks if he’s sought counseling to deal with his trauma, but the man isn’t interested in healing. He wants vengeance.

On the following Sunday, the man vows, he will meet Father James on the beach and kill him. Why take his anger out on James? The man explains that his attacker has long since died, and anyway, killing a bad priest would accomplish nothing. The only way to send a message about the horror he endured is to kill a good priest like James.

If you can accept this insane rationale, you still have to get past one additional hurdle before you can appreciate McDonagh’s powerful film: You must accept the fact that James doesn’t attempt to save his life by having the man arrested.

He does report the threat to his superior, who assures him that he’s under no obligation to protect the man’s anonymity. As for the question of whether James should report the matter to the police, the superior basically shrugs, saying that’s totally up to him.

From this point on, Calvary is a portrait of a good man trying to minister to the needs of his parishioners while a death sentence hangs over his head. James knows which of them is his would-be murderer, but we don’t. Therefore, the film is like a whodunit—or rather, a “who will do it?” But it’s much more than that.

The seaside village where James serves is a collection of lost and tortured souls. Among others, there’s an aging writer (M. Emmet Walsh) who speaks of turning to suicide when his body fails him; a married woman (Orla O’Rourke) who openly cheats on her husband (Chris O’Dowd) with a lover (Isaach De Bankole) who may be beating her; and a wealthy but lonely man (Dylan Moran) who appears to care only for his possessions.

All are in desperate need of guidance, and James tries to provide it. In return, however, he’s ignored and insulted. The implication is that by attempting to protect its abusive priests rather than their victims, the church has surrendered its moral authority.

Most painfully for James, he’s visited by Fiona (Kelly Reilly), his daughter from a marriage that ended in his wife’s death. Fiona suffers from depression and recently attempted suicide, but she rebuffs her father’s attempts to comfort her. She still resents him for “deserting” her by joining the priesthood after she’d already lost her mother.

McDonagh’s literate script is filled with humor that’s both dark and biting, but it’s mixed with sadness and compassion. The talented actors nearly always find a soul beneath their characters’ flinty exteriors.

But the film really belongs to Gleeson. The beefy actor fully inhabits James, a fiercely intelligent man who sometimes loses his temper but is relentlessly kind and committed to his flock.

We sense that James is the kind of priest who could do a lot of good if only he weren’t hampered by a church that’s just as fallible as the people he’s trying to help.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)


Calvary, rated R, opens Friday (Aug. 22) at the Drexel and Lennox theaters.