Thursday, 1 May 2014

Calvary (2014, John Michael McDonagh)

John Michael McDonagh's Calvary is a mixed bag of ideas and executions; on one hand it's a higher reaching and higher serving film than 2011's The Guard yet the simple pleasures of its predecessor are lost here in a conflicting battle of existentialism and broad humour.

At one point Brendan Gleeson's priest - Father James Lavelle - says to another offended priest, "you just don't have integrity, that's the worst thing you could say to someone". Integrity is certainly something McDonagh and his brother Martin don't lack but here is an example of a filmmaker trying to have his cake and eat it. We know the brothers' penchant for the crass, but they're also capable of great pathos (most expertly shown in Martin McDonagh's In Bruges). To quote another famous priest - Robert Mitchum's Robert Powell in The Night Of The Hunter -  is a clear battle of "right-hand-left-hand". On one hand is the introspective, brooding cinema of Ingmar Bergman, the transcendental formalism of Robert Bresson, and the equally formalist Carl Theodor Dreyer. On the other is an onslaught of obvious humour that offsets this drama asking what it means to be a priest today and what place God has in modern society.

Brendan Gleeson carries the film as effortlessly as one would expect. He makes Father James instantly recognisable and gruff, a man generally liked by the community and yet ostracised for his collar. His recovering daughter (Kelly Reilly) comes to stay with her family in this small Irish community as she gets over an attempted suicide. We never see the arrangement of her staying yet she is embraced with the calmness you might not expect from a father who's nearly lost his only child; we later find out they have lost their wife and mother, respectfully, in the past. Loss has permeated both their lives in different ways and so when death hangs above them they remain neutral as if in the company of a strange local in a dark pub. There's something beautifully serene and yet unsettling about this.

It's accurate to say that Calvary begins and ends with its most powerful and poignant scenes; the opening - a shocking confessional filmed with Gleeson in tight close up - is a straight faced and threatening scene as a formerly clergy abused child now adult vows that the Father will die in 7 days. The Guard had a sense of an impending showdown yet here the tone here is increasingly grave from the offset. The closing scene is a profound sweep over the lives of the film's players and their problems brought forward by the unfurling drama that shows the necessary impact of someone like Father James, believer or not. 

Calvary ends up being two films trying to operate simultaneously and never really gelling. The comedy even when on target (it's not always) feels more like comic relief for the films larger overarching themes. On one hand it brings to mind Bergman's Winter Light and of Bresson's Diary Of A Country Priest - yet the drama omitted form these clear reference points are diluted and off-set by the periodic crass humour, never really allowing the film to fully consider its comedy or more importantly its questions of faith and its placement in the world today.

Out of the two films it tries to be, the one that works really works. John Michael McDonagh has followed in his brother's footsteps in that he's made a rather conflicted second feature, however unlike his brother there are elements within this follow up that take this beyond his debut. Some more direction might be needed for his third feature as the talent up on screen is undoubtable, though hopefully next time making a film with a clear path instead of making two films concurrently. 

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