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Movie review: Priesthood isn’t what it used to be in powerful ‘Calvary’
Review » Questions of life and death at heart of effective Irish drama.
First Published Aug 14 2014 03:23 pm • Last Updated Aug 16 2014 04:22 pm

Devout Catholics will likely blanch at the Irish drama "Calvary," and that’s their right. If a movie showed a harsh depiction of something I hold in high regard, the way Catholics feel about the priesthood, I might be offended, too.

But that’s one of the points writer-director John Michael McDonagh makes in this dark, involving character study: Even in Ireland, where the Mother Church has long held sway in spite of decades of sex-abuse scandals, the priesthood isn’t what it used to be.

At a glance

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‘Calvary’

A priest is threatened with death, causing him to contemplate his life, in this effective Irish drama.

Where » Broadway Centre Cinemas.

When » Opens Friday, Aug. 15.

Rating » R for sexual references, language, brief strong violence and some drug use.

Running time » 100 minutes.

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There are some good priests, and Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is one of them. He’s caring and thoughtful, though perhaps "a little too sharp for this parish," as one parishioner tells him. So he’s as surprised as anyone when a man in the confessional, after declaring that he was abused as a child by a priest (now deceased), says that he will murder Father James a week from Sunday.

McDonagh sets us up for a whodunit, but it doesn’t play out that way — in part because Father James seems to know, even if we don’t, who his potential killer will be. That information becomes less important as the movie plays out, as we follow James in his regular dealings with his flock, where he sees more clearly than ever what little impact he has.

James checks on Veronica (Orla O’Rourke), who comes to Sunday Mass with a black eye — given to her either by her husband, Jack (Chris O’Dowd), who’s the town butcher, or her boyfriend, the mechanic Simon (Isaach de Bankolé). He listens to the uber-rich Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran) brag about his fortune as he promises a donation to buy his way into heaven. He consoles a dying author (M. Emmet Walsh) who only wants bourbon and, when the time comes, a gun. He drives up to the nearby prison for an unnerving meeting with a psycho killer (creepily played by "About Time" star Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan’s son).

More troubles arrive from outside the parish. James tries to give comfort to a French tourist (Marie-Josée Croze) whose husband is killed in a car crash. And he has a tearful reunion with his daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), after her latest failed suicide attempt, to talk about why he reacted to her mother’s death by retreating to the priesthood.

McDonagh (whose last movie, "The Guard," starred Gleeson as a high-living cop) grimly captures the rhythms of this Irish town and the little dramas of its residents. He also casts a dark eye at the ways a good priest’s calling is hobbled by people’s growing animosity toward the institution of the Roman Catholic Church.

"Calvary" is also a prime showcase for Gleeson, a multifaceted actor usually relegated to supporting roles. (Americans will probably recognize him first as Mad-Eye Moody from the "Harry Potter" films.) Gleeson channels Father James’ desire to help and his frustration that fewer and fewer people take his authority seriously. His passionate, perfectly modulated performance gives "Calvary" its emotional punch.

movies@sltrib.com

Twitter: @moviecricket


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