Thursday, September 4, 2014

Calvary (2014)

"Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. 
Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned".
- St. Augustine.

In a startling opening scene, and as Father James (Brendan Gleeson) himself admits, "It's certainly a startling opening line", an unknown man, during a confessional in a local church in a small Irish village, confesses that he was raped by a priest as a child, repeatedly for five years. The man says, he isn't seeking absolution, nor does he want to cope with what happened to him. He instead wants to kill a good priest, for that would be a big thing for the church as against killing a bad priest, and besides, his perpetrator is no more among the living. The man walks away issuing the threat, but not before granting Father James seven days to settle things and make his peace with God. The day is marked as the next Sunday.

Over the following week, a somewhat perturbed Father James goes about his life, and interacts with the village-folk, perhaps in the hope of confirming his suspicions about the identity of his would-be killer. Only this week turns out to be like no other, as he struggles with his own faith, caught in the eye of a storm of agnosticism and religious criticism.

Calvary is the name of the site where Jesus Christ was crucified. James is also, perhaps in danger of being killed by the seaside, where the killer says he would do the act. While James is no saint, the fatherly priest is certainly a godsend in the godforsaken Irish village, where cynicism, agnosticism and extreme atheism prevails. God-fearing, optimistic, morally stable people like Father James who still believe in humanity are in a clear minority. While the setup evokes memories of Robert Bresson's revered classic "Diary of a Country Priest" (1951), McDonagh's film differs in its tone and intent. In Bresson's film, the lead character is a young priest, just starting off in a local village, where all the inherent meanness and moral corruption around him finds him questioning his own faith in the face of a hopeless scenario. Moreover, the film is relentlessly bleak, practically devoid of any kind of humour.

"Calvary" is more of a dark tragicomedy rife with sardonic and often gallows humour, with a mystery plot wrapped around, giving it a more edgy and accessible feel. Its thematic heaviness, touching upon complex subjects such as existentialism, faith, religion and morality may find considerable appeal in the arthouse circles. The lead character in "Calvary" is an elderly man, more experienced, and undeterred by all the scorn that comes his way. Carefree individuals with little or no scruples seem to hate him as well as admire him. They do attend the church regularly, but it's obvious not all of them are real believers or abide by even a shred of the doctrines of the religion they follow.

A married woman who visits the church appears to have facial injuries. James interferes and finds she is having an affair with a coloured South American man and infers that the injury is caused due to a violent reaction by the husband. But the altruistic move of putting these people on a righteous path misfires when it turns out, the woman enjoys being beaten, and her husband is happy about the situation for he doesn't much like her anyway! Just when one thinks it couldn't get any more degenerate, the woman herself comes up to James, mocks him, tells him she is about to commit a mortal sin, and goes on to meet her lover!

Interesting questions are raised about morality and sin, salvation and damnation, through Father James' one week journey. A well-written script lays out intriguing episodes in the life of James, woven together, giving us a prophetic picture of the kind of culture that is threatening to emerge in the village, serving as a microcosm for the world in general. The idea of faith appears to be fading away. People seem to getting increasingly detached and the moral fabric holding the society together faces a great danger of gradual unraveling. Unabashed disregard for virtuousness on one hand and a fear of God or inherent virtue on the other; a fifty percent possibility of any outcome no matter what path you choose, as summarized in the paradox above, quoted by St. Augustine.

In one devastating scene, James strikes an innocuous conversation with a little girl in an isolated area. Her father soon enters the scene and instead of looking at James as a possible protector, reacts with furious anger and questions his motives. James' reaction is that of utter frustration and sadness, and he is unable to fathom the depths to which the image of the church has plunged; the extent to which the healthiest of bonds are looked down upon with gross doubts of misconduct.

In the midst of all this, the motivations and purpose of the church are questioned, especially in the wake of some shocking sex scandals. The meaning of forgiveness is questioned, when Father James says that his ex-pupil, a dreaded serial killer in jail deserves absolution much like any other human being, despite his confession that he enjoyed brutalizing his victims! The debate between fair and unfair is seen from a tricky perspective, when a very good man suddenly dies in an accident and his wife, perhaps with a hint of sarcasm says that what happened to her husband is not unfair. It's just something that happened. Others who aren't good people, who don't love or feel love, continue to live on. Now that's unfair!

In one clever instance, James advises a young, inept loner, Milo (Killian Scott), against joining the army, for the conditions didn't deem it necessary for anyone to join the army unless they wanted to know how it's like to kill someone. "Thou shalt not kill" is the word. "What about self defense?", young Milo quips! James is visibly faced with a question mark and admits that it is an exception. Words of these youngsters suddenly make sense to him and perhaps fleeting thoughts cross his mind, about whether these religious teachings indeed hold any water and whether right and wrong could ever be classified as black and white. 

Thrown into the mix is James' suicidal daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), who is surprisingly met with some more gallows humour from the village folk about how she botched up the wrist-slitting action! She is battling with a lost love and lost parents, thanks to her father giving up the family life and becoming a priest. But in a very strange, but beautiful twist following the film's shattering climax it is hinted that she has inherited her father's nature. 

Most of the people James gets in touch with, find no solace or respite after their discussion with him. People seem to be troubled but their troubles are converting them to stones and as humanity erodes away, an exasperated James decides to take a vacation. In a splendid, cleverly timed scene concerning a coffin and its carriers, James witnesses the peak of human detachment. Perhaps this sight becomes his epiphany, the last nail in the coffin that makes him confirm his path and seals his fate. 

Anchored by Brendan Gleeson's electrifying performance, "Calvary" boasts of a soulful score, breathtaking cinematography capturing some picturesque Irish country landscapes, and a sharp script featuring an eclectic medley of characters. Some of the characterization may seem a little over the top, but it all goes well with the darkly comic flavour of the film that is used to top up an otherwise tragic character portrait. James is not the gravest of characters either. He maintains his cool for the most part, appears to be full of dry wit, even when his limits are tested, and there are outbursts. He is aware that he is nothing like Jesus Christ who died for the sins of the world. But could the confessor's threat be a means for him to offer himself as the Lamb of God to redeem the ghastly sins of the church and of his entire village?

He does mention in the end, in that one statement that could make the viewer sit down and ponder. "I think there's too much talk about sins, not enough about virtues. Forgiveness is a virtue that has been highly underrated".

Score: 9/10

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