Calvary (John Michael McDonagh, 2014)

What's it about? Fr James (Brendan Gleeson) contemplates his fate and faith after one of his parishioners promises in confession to kill him in one week's time. It's made by the same team that made The Guard and co-stars comic talent like Pat Shortt, Dylan Moran, David McSavage and Chris O'Dowd. So it's funny, right? Wrong.

Is it any good? The title here is very apt. There wasn't many laughs in the account of Jesus' death on the cross at Calvary, but there was quite a bit about forgiveness, if I remember rightly. So it is with this film, which is not the black comedy its marketing campaign would have you believe, but is instead an existential meditation on sin and redemption in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. Set in the wild west of Co. Sligo, there's also a Western theme running throughout - the landscape and distinctive Benbulben mountain doing its best impression of Monument Valley - although it is dialogue rather than action that drives the film to its final showdown on a windswept beach. It's an ambitious, thoughtful follow-up to the similarly Western-inflected, but much more light-hearted, The Guard, with an absolutely riveting opening sequence which should set straight anyone who thinks they're in for a laugh.

However, from that electric beginning, the road through Calvary is not always smooth and it certainly stumbles a few times on the way. Although a strong cast play Fr James' parishioners, each of whom variously personify the challenges and criticisms the Catholic Church continues to face in an attempt to remain relevant in an increasingly secular society, this makes for a rather uneven film, as these somewhat caricatured characters flit in and out of the film. As a result, the momentum doesn't build smoothly to the finale and the film even self-mockingly highlights its own episodic staginess at one point. In the end, despite all the talking, it doesn't really formulate a fully articulate view about the state of modern Irish society, or the place of the Catholic Church within it. Perhaps that is the point ; everyone is a bit lost in the wilderness and needs some guidance, but that seems a rather underwhelming answer for the lofty ambitions of the film. That said, it is carried on the back of a terrific performance by Gleeson, sporting a Great Movie Beard and with a cassock flapping round him like the coat of a gunslinger, as a good man trying to make a difference in a cynical world that might not care. His fascinating, subtle performance holds everything else in some sort of order and thanks to him in particular, I'm willing to forgive the film its flaws. I'm like Jesus, me.

Anything else I should know? By coincidence I happened to be in Co. Sligo last week, standing near the very beach where some of this film is shot. Although I mention above the lack of laughs in the film (despite the misleading trailer), there was one bit that made me chuckle in amusement, when one character runs out of the sea in a swimsuit and isn't noticeably close to death from the cold. I paddled up to my ankles briefly in that same sea last weekend and next thing you know I was regaining consciousness following a hypothermia-induced coma for several hours. Good job I had my beer-coat on. 

What does the Fonz think? Some faults, but no need to crucify it for that.

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