***1/2 stars out of ****
The end of the summer movie season seems an odd time for Hollywood to release two intelligent films exploring spirituality, but that’s exactly what has happened with John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary and Woody Alllen’s Magic in the Moonlight.
Calvary is a more serious film, the tale of a priest (the always magnificent Brendan Gleeson) whose life is threatened in the confessional. The culprit says he’ll kill the cleric in one week as repayment for the Catholic Church’s many sins (none of which Gleeson is guilty of). The priest knows who’s threatening him, but refuses to go to the police. He believes he can help/reason with the man.
The film’s running time explores how Gleeson spends the week attending to his parishioners - among them, a shady rich guy (Dylan Moran), an oafish butcher (Chris O’Dowd), a cynical doctor (Aiden Gillen), and an elderly writer (M. Emmet Walsh). Gleeson also is trying to help his daughter (Kelly Reilly), who’s recovering from a suicide attempt (he entered the priesthood after his wife died).
As the week progresses, the priest struggles both with his own mortality and his doubts about his own faith. He’s a good man trying to do the best by his community, but often finds only indifference and scorn. The film also addresses Ireland’s soured relationship with the Catholic Church in the wake of child abuse scandals and the horrific stories of the Magdalene Laundries. It’s thoughtful stuff, and it’s uniformly well-acted and beautifully photographed.
Calvary is the 2nd of three films Gleeson plans to make with McDonagh (after 2011’s fun cop movie The Guard). After that and Calvary, film buffs should eagerly anticipate the third collaboration.