Writer-director John Michael McDonaugh made a big splash two years ago with his black comedy thriller The Guard starring Brendan Gleeson as a life-weary Irish policeman, a role which earned him a well-deserved Golden Globe nomination for Best Comedy Actor. The two have now teamed once again for Calvary an equally black and bitterly funny Irish-set drama that is lighter on the action and heavier on the existential wistfulness that its predecessor, and in Park City the film received a warm reception from a capacity Eccles crowd and an equally favorable one from the Sundance press-screening audience.
Gleeson here plays Father James Lavelle, a priest who has received his vocation late in life, after the death of his wife and mother of his daughter. He has set his hard drinking ways aside and plies his ministry with plaintive determination in a small parish in the West of Ireland. At the film’s outset he receives confession from a parishioner who bluntly tells him that he intends to kill him in a week’s time; he is, the unseen penitent informs him, to be the sacrificial victim to pay for the widespread trauma wrought in Ireland by pedophile priests of which he himself was a child prey.
It is the prologue that opens a week of soul-searching on the priest’s part as he wrangles with issues of justice and faith – his own and that of the small community in the breathtakingly beautiful West-Irish setting. The town is composed of an assortment of characters which include the staunchly atheist doctor, an elderly American writer, a directionless woman of loose morals, an African immigrant mechanic, a “publican” who has hit hard economic times, a local “bankster” and a confused adolescent. Father Lavelle encounters all in the course of his “Calvary week” as well as his emotionally damaged adult daughter, and there is no shortage of unexpected turns as he tries to “set his affairs in order” while confronting assorted crises and hostility.
While often hilariously funny, the tone of this film is surprisingly earnest behind the wit and sarcasm, as its protagonist deals with issues of spiritual meaning and morality; the Irish landscape in all its imposing emerald glory is in itself a character that elevates the film to a poetic and thoroughly original meditation on life as well as a strong indictment of the sins of the Irish Catholic Church.
McDonaugh applies his highly personal vision to those themes that this year have already been the she subject of a successful film like Philomena delivering a film that is as refreshingly far from facile formulas and stock characters as his previous effort was.
A movie that revels in a literary appreciation that is thoroughly Irish and one of this Sundance’s most pleasant discoveries.
You see them everywhere in town: directing traffic in the heated tents where fans wait in line clutching hard won tickets standing under portable heaters at shuttle stops, helping puzzled out-of-towners to the correct buses, on Main Street wearing “Ask Me” signs and acting as ushers in the darkened theaters. They are the volunteers that keep the festival’s gears oiled; there’s’ more than 1800 of them that converge on Sundance every year from around the corner and around the country. Students, seniors, professionals and simple film fans, wearing their ubiquitous blue vests greeting all comers with a ready smile and a helpful tip in exchange for the pleasure of the experience and the free screenings between shifts. We couldn’t do it without them.