For those in any doubt whether Calvary, John Michael McDonagh’s black comedy about a ‘good priest’ in rural west Ireland, was going to dodge the proverbial elephant-in-the-plot, the first line puts you straight: ‘I first tasted semen at the age of eight’, says an out-of-shot parishioner in the confessional. ‘That’s quite an opening line’, says Brendan Gleeson’s Father James, resisting a little wink-nod to the audience.
From behind the grille, the unseen parishioner tells Father James of the abuse he suffered at the hands of another clergyman. He can’t seek direct revenge – the priest in question is long dead. Instead, he arranges to meet the ‘good priest’ James on the beach the following Sunday, and kill him in atonement for the sins of the Catholic Church.
McDonagh explained his motives in making the film: ‘There are probably films in development about priests which involve abuse. My remit is to do the opposite of what other people do, and I wanted to make a film about a good priest.’ It’s a worthy aim, and Calvary does set out to confront the mordant cynicism which the abuse scandal left in its wake as much as it does the abhorrent behaviour of the clergy. But in that initial exchange in the confessional, a tension appears that never quite gets resolved.
Whose side is McDonagh really on? Is the magnanimity of Father James enough to balance out the crimes of his colleague? Is this a film about the evils of flagrant, new-Atheist cynicism, as embodied in the figure of an abuse-sufferer-turned-vigilante, or is it, more plainly, about the wrongs of religion itself? In the ensuing tug-of-war, Calvary comes undone.
In the week before he’s set to meet his fate, Father James goes about his business as usual. As he does his rounds, his idyllic country parish is shown to be beset by a kind of hedonism-cum-misanthropy – sex, cocaine, wife beating and church bashing are a burgeoning local industry. His parishioners seem to attend mass purely as a form of mockery – half of them talk quite openly about their disdain for the church, not to mention their murderous impulses. Dylan Moran plays a banker and, in a grating dig at that most hated folk villain of our times, he invites James round to show off his expensive things and how little they mean to him, taking a priceless Holbein down from the wall just to piss on it.