In the Golden Age of Hollywood, the priest was generally a figure of benign, good-hearted authority. Recall Spencer Tracy's Father Flanagan in Boys Town or Bing Crosby's Father O'Malley in Going My Way.
What a long strange trip it's been for the Irish Catholic priest in cinema.
Director John Michael McDonagh's Calvary is a culmination of sorts, even while its protagonist, Father James (Brendan Gleeson) retains the role of kindly adviser, shepherd and parish eminence, in his rural Irish community.
But the abuses and corruption within his church have effectively cut him off at his bended knees.
In the startling opening scene, in a confessional, an unseen parishioner tells Father James of the horrific sexual abuse he suffered as a child. In a state of latent rage, he confesses to a sin he has not yet committed: It is not sufficient to kill a guilty priest. "There's no point in killing a bad priest," he says. "I'm going to kill you because you're innocent."
The date is set for Sunday next. He advises the good father to get his affairs in order.
From there, Calvary proceeds in a seemingly contradictory fashion, as an often comic sketch of a tiny Irish parish, but with a darker, insistent undercurrent of whodunit (or who-will-do-it, as the case may be).
Father James touches base with the members of his flock, each of whom might well function as a station of the priest's own cross. Each has his own personal problems and axes to grind. Wealthy heel Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran) has accumulated great wealth but has been cut adrift by friends and family. Town butcher Jack Brennan (Chris O'Dowd) is suspected of hitting his troubled, sexually uninhibited wife Veronica (Orla O'Rourke). An American expatriate credited only as the Writer (M. Emmet Walsh) asks the good father to secure him a pistol so that he may end his own life before he becomes too infirm, a task not quite befitting a priest. A virginal young man (Killian Scott) consults with the priest about the notion he could join the army as a means of releasing his violent impulses.
A police inspector (Gary Lydon) is found consorting unapologetically with Leo (Owen Sharpe), a male prostitute who speaks in the cadences of a delinquent from a Hollywood movie of the '40s -- a chilling, corrupted echo of those cheeky street urchins remembered from Going My Way and Boys Town.
More hostile: an atheist doctor (Aidan Gillen) spoiling for a fight, theological or otherwise.
Father James's own daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) (he was a husband and father before his wife's untimely death allowed him to answer "the calling") returns for a visit, fresh from a traumatic breakup and a suicide attempt. Their scenes together are beautiful in their painful tenderness.
As in McDonagh's last collaboration with Gleeson, the unsung comedy The Guard, the writing here is wonderfully sharp and the performances uniformly excellent. It's especially interesting to see comic actors O'Dowd and Moran fearlessly navigating deep dramatic waters.
Gleeson is just magnificent. His character is a decent man nearly undone by the sins of other Fathers, brought to the verge of tears at one point when a protective dad witnesses him talking to his daughter and assumes wearing priestly robes announces status as a sex offender.
Even so, one is stirred by the character's courage, meeting his destiny with the integrity he prizes above all.