My Calvary

The Village Voice gave its review of Calvary the ludicrous title “Brendan Gleeson Forces Us to Care About His Catholic Priest in Calvary,” which reads like a loosely translated American movie title in China. But it says volumes about the film’s appeal.

Beloved or at least forgiven by most critics, five minutes into Calvary, I felt like I was seven weeks late for the movie of the year. Written by John Michael McDonagh, it’s about an Irish priest, Father James, who hears a man come into a confessional. He announces that he was sexually abused as a child and hurt beyond repair, and that he plans to take his revenge by killing this particular priest in a week, on a specific day, not because he’s a bad priest, because he’s one of the good ones, and presumably that will make his gesture grander.

It’s all downhill from there. If not for its framing device naming the days of the week as they pass, we’d forget that there’s a date with a murderer pending, and the movie would lose all forward motion completely. Clumsy dialogue that leaves nothing to the subtext. Lack of complications: his attempts at problem-solving don’t beget more problems, they just quietly fail. Then there’s the daughter.

The fact that Father James had a daughter, and a wife who died before he took his vow of celibacy, seems like a lousy attempt to graft a subplot out of The Sweet Hereafter onto a story about a priest. If you’re going to make a film about a statistical outlier, then a part of me wants the film to be about that. Sure, give your hero a unique past, even a checkered past, but if he has a Grammy on his mantle for Best New Artist, then you’d better account for that with a little more than a scene of dialogue.

I Confess!

I Confess!

Such is the power of a great premise, and by “great” I mean, yes, full of intrigue – the confessional, a place where he’s obligated to listen and keep it to himself – but also speaking to a giant moral question of our time. What exactly have “good Catholics” done for the most vulnerable people in their very own communities? When are we going to start comparing them to a “banality of evil” checklist? A premise that viewers are hungry for will make those viewers lose their minds with appreciation. We all turn into screaming teenagers at a Beatles TV appearance. We lose our critical faculties.

Kenneth Turan put it nicely in a column he wrote recently about Boyhood, a film that, as a critic, he found himself in the lonely position of not liking enough to write about at first, because he didn’t want to spoil the party when everyone around him was gushing about it. “For me it was, at best, OK, a film whose animating idea is more interesting than its actual satisfactions.” I disagree, but I’m thrilled that that critic is still out there. It’s a particular kind of cross we carry, as artists or critics, when we don’t believe the hype about an artistic happening. Sometimes you carry the weight of speaking up, and sometimes you just drop it.

What do you think?

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