Brendon Gleeson personifies real love's titanium backbone.Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

5 StarsWhy I Saw It: Press Screening, Fox Searchlight Pictures is mandatory viewing, and anything that puts a priest into an ethical swirl is catnip in my book. (Not because a priest per se, but because I love watching what people do when life throws down the gauntlet at the feet of their beliefs.)
What I Thought:  The last time we met Fox Searchlight, they were on such a roll that I marveled at what they could possibly bring us next. And they brought us Calvary. Honestly, there needs to be some kind of Oscar for distributors. And Domhnall Gleeson hits Established 3Roller status!

Calvary. Dir. John Michael McDonagh. Perf. Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Chris O’Dowd, Aidan Gillen, M. Emmet Walsh, star Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Og Lane. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2014.

When a parishioner makes a credible threat to his life during confession, a priest weighs the limits of his spiritual commitment while tending to his flock and preparing his response to the would-be assailant.
It’s become a mantra of sorts: every time I walk out of a screening of theirs, my first words are, “Fox Searchlight does it again!” It may sound like a broken record, when in actuality it’s an unbroken record.

This time up, it’s Calvary, a visceral knockout punch and remarkably beautiful piece of filmmaking.

Here we meet Father James. We don’t know him, we only know him as A Priest. In the confessional, listening to the voice of his sheep. And what this sheep has to say is, “I’m going to kill you, Father. You, personally. Sunday a week.”

We don’t know anything about Father James at this point, other than that suddenly everything he stands for (well, everything for which priests stand for) (well, everything priests are supposed to stand for) just got tested.

Thus commences what may be the last week in the life of a man of two worlds, committed to one. Of a man willing to receive the impudence and hostility of people for whom he serves as a lightning rod for the pain of their powerlessness, of a man willing to see past the acting out and respond to the wound rather than the woundedness. Of an ordinary man in an extraordinary position to make an actual difference, and in so doing grant healing respect to one, and just maybe, offer an amends to millions.

Brendan Gleeson delivers a searing and career-defining performance, the crowning jewel to date on an already illustrious body of work. So much of Father James’ experience is unspoken, and Gleeson conveys his gentleness and devotion entirely through posture and expression. When he loves those he loves, we love them too; when he hurts over those he cares for, his pain is palpable.

But when he does speak, his words and actions burst forth with a power that looks evil straight in the eye and calls it out to its face. Never the person conveying the message, but the message itself. Entirely through Gleeson do we experience the marvel of a man genuinely tender and commensurately bold, cut from the same cloth (if you’ll forgive the expression) as Hugh Jackman’s Keller Dover and Russell Crowe’s Maxiumus. The performance is powerful to the point that it’s been three days since I met Father James, and he still feels like someone I actually know. That hasn’t happened since Warrior.

Calvary also boasts two other deeply stirring performances, which unfortunately I can’t get into with any specificity. Father James is the only one who knows the identity of his resolute parishioner, so details will ruin the mystery. Suffice to say that Chris O’Dowd and Domhnall Gleeson show us some completely different, and deliciously surprising, capabilities. The scene between Gleesons elder and younger is the best since Pacino and De Niro in Heat, and actually surpasses it by several lengths.

The film itself is utterly beautiful. Writer/director John Michael McDonagh rounds up several of his contingent from The Guard, and executes with sumptuous cinematography, panoramic shots of the Irish coast near Rush, and one powerful score. The visuals captivate us, the sea air and fierce waves spin around us, and the effect in grabs us tight until the last second, when it releases its grip to leave us dazed.

With regard to story, McDonagh crafts an emotional tale that speaks directly to the damage in a way that precious few I’ve seen have been able to reach. For anyone without understanding of the devastation wrought by what drives our parishioner (such as the fortunate a few seats down who exclaimed loudly during the credits, “I have no idea what that was about” – lucky, lucky boy), Calvary will give you a glimpse into the life of someone you know (whether you know that or not), and anyone who does know will feel honored. Between the events that transpire and the depth of the response by Father James both as a priest, and as it happens, a father, we grasp the gravity even where it mercifully may not be our own.

Can we overlay Jesus onto Father James? Sure, if you like. It’s probably a neat peek into what he was like as a man. But is it a Christian movie? Only in that it’s about a Christian, and more specifically, a Catholic.

Calvary is the story of any person who is willing to look AT a fallen, barbaric world, see what action can personally be done to mitigate its damage, and muster the intestinal fortitude to do it even unto the point of losing one’s life in the doing. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. And what makes it truly remarkable is that said friends may be one(s) never recognized as such.

It’s what Jesus of Nazareth did; it’s what Oskar Schindler did; it’s what Mohammad Gulab did, even bringing his young son into it with him. In no case were they obligated, however strongly their beliefs may have dictated, to pursue the course as far as they did; they could, in fact, have said no. It’s a love that crosses and transcends faith and culture; whatever its motivation, it’s real human love in action, and it takes a backbone of steel. Real love ain’t for sissies.

When one looks at such people and wonders at how they find it within themselves to do it and then actually carry it out, we can look to Calvary.

Does Father James live to see Monday next? I’ll never tell; Jesus didn’t, but Schindler and Gulab did, so you can’t find hints here. How Father James responds to his parishioner you must experience for yourself.

But what I will say is that it’s an encounter you won’t forget anytime soon, and the last frame will, well… you must experience it for yourself.

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