Posts Tagged ‘Calvary at Sundance’

Last Sunday week I attended the world premiere of the Irish film Calvary at the Sundance Film Festival. This highly anticipated movie, from John Michael McDonagh, has received nothing but rave reviews and has already been snapped up by Fox Searchlight, for a reported $2.5 million, for distribution in the U.S. and select international territories.

Que for the world premiere of Calvary.

Queuing up for the world premiere of Calvary.

Audience waiting for Calvary to start.

Audience waiting for Calvary to start.

Set in Sligo, Calvary is the story of a tough-minded but good-hearted Irish priest marked for death by one of his parishioners and tormented by the cynical, spiteful members of his village. Given a week to make his peace with God, he ministers to lost souls ~ visits that double as a guided tour of suspects ~ and makes peace with his adult daughter, a child from his marriage before entering the priesthood.

This darkly comedic, and brilliantly layered, drama exposes the ugly side of Catholicism’s contemporary woes (from sexual abuse to waning influence). It is a masterful follow-up to The Guard for writer-director John Michael McDonagh. And, it firmly secures Brendan Gleeson’s place as Ireland’s hottest actor.

John Michael McDonagh, Chris O'Dowd, and during the Q&A session after the film.

John Michael McDonagh, Kelly Reilly, Chris O’Dowd, and Isaach de Bankole taking questions during the Q&A session after the film.

There are so many great things to tell you about this movie but better writers than I have already done so. Please check out Variety’s comments here, The Hollywood Reporter’s comments here, and Collider.com’s comments here. What I’d like to focus on in this post is what has not really been said or written about Calvary.

For starters, thanks to the Director of Photography, Larry Smith, Calvary shows off Ireland in the most beautiful of ways. McDonagh’s script writing is reminiscent of great Irish theatrical productions that still show in the Gaiety, the Abbey, and the Olympia. The gallows humor peppered throughout perfectly relieves the otherwise tense subject matter of child-sex abuse by the Catholic hierarchy that is the focus of the film. Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly and all the cast were ideally suited to each role and played off one-another in ways that pull you back and forth between delight and disgust. And, though the opening line is absolutely repugnant, it draws you into the story so quickly that you are vested long before you realise.

A light moment during the Q&A session.

A light moment during the Q&A session.

Now, all these things being true…I still have something to say that may not be very popular and it is this: though I thought this was a terrific film and would encourage people everywhere to see it, I found myself {about half-way through} wondering…”Why are ALL the characters (bar one) in Calvary caricatures of the worst kind of Irish people?”

Let me give you a run-down of the main characters: There’s the town butcher who is suspected of beating his wife. His slut-wife who is sleeping with her black immigrant lover from the Ivory Coast. There’s the sinister police officer and his saucy male lover; a doctor with violently atheist views; a snobbishly wealthy man who’s part of the recent Irish banking debacle; a sex-starved young Irishman; and an imprisoned-rapist-murderer-cannibal. Even the priest himself has a drink problem, and his poor daughter has recently tried to commit suicide. The minor characters are also grossly exaggerated in the most ugly of ways. For example, there’s the two airport workers callously lounging on a casket before it’s put aboard a plane to France and a man who prejudges and accuses Gleeson’s character of inappropriate behaviour with a minor only because he is a priest walking with a child along a lonely stretch of road leading to a beach.

Maybe it’s hard for me to be impartial {given that my husband is Irish, my children are Irish and most of my friends are Irish…not to mention that my family tree is firmly rooted in Ireland} but I found the total stereotyping of the characters in this film to be somewhat offensive and distracting to the storyline, which is both powerful and moving.

There was also an exchange during the Q&A between McDonagh and a film-goer that was off-putting. McDonagh was asked, “Does this film in any way represent the current feeling in Ireland towards the Catholic church?” To which he replied, “I think if you go to Ireland now the Church, the Roman Catholic Church, is actually dead in Ireland. There’s hardly anyone at Mass….I think it’s almost dead in Ireland.” Personally, I feel McDonagh allowed this viewpoint of Catholicism to colour the personality of all his characters (except a French woman whose husband is killed in a drunk driving accident) and I believe the film would have been better served with a more balanced reflection of the Irish society.

John Michael McDonagh at the Q&A session.

John Michael McDonagh at the Q&A session.

To this, I can only counter with my own experience of Catholicism in Ireland…the Church is not dead. Our Church, in a suburb of Dublin, is standing room only on Sunday mornings and on Holy Days. My children have been Alter Servers, as have many of the boys and girls living in our village.

And, I am sure my brother-in-law, who gave up a successful career in the technology industry to become a priest 15 years ago, would disagree with McDonagh’s comment about the Church. Sure, during the heat of the child-sex-abuse scandal, my brother-in-law would have found himself feeling the outrage of strangers and passersby while wearing his cleric attire, but he would say today that people of faith have stayed true to their beliefs and have not painted him or the whole Catholic Church with the same wicked paint brush. Perhaps like the French woman in Calvary says…{and I am paraphrasing here} “perhaps those who gave up their faith so easily, never had it be begin with.”

I think Calvary would have been better served if it had had less caricatures of ill-tempered, poor mannered, drunken Irish people in it. I also feel the film would have been better served if McDonagh had been more realistic about “faith in Ireland” by showing that while it has been tarnished, battered and bruised, it continues on.

Calvary is a beautifully crafted film. Visually, emotionally and intellectually it is superb. I encourage you to see it. And, I would love to know what other Sundancers thought/felt about it…are my comments ridiculous or valid? Lastly, I wonder how well Calvary will be received at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival next month. I suppose, we shall see.

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