Monday, July 7, 2014


There is a memento mori on display early on in this movie. Two characters are standing in front of Holbein’s The Ambassadors which features an anamorphic skull that floats very oddly in the foreground of the picture. If you know it’s there you can see it straight away but if you don’t you might need to be told that the weird looking disc hovering like a UFO needs to be viewed almost from side on before it looks like a skull. Neither character mentions it and the scene works whether you see it or not but if you do see it you’ll get a little more out of this film that stands as a whole as a memento mori.

Also, we've already begun with an epigraph from St Augustine about the two thieves on either side of Christ at Calvary: Don't despair: one of the thieves was saved. Don't presume: the other thief was damned.

Don't despair. Don't presume. Hope all you like just don't hope too comfortably.

Along the same lines the frequent aerial sequences of the rich emerald hills and dales of Ireland which at first seem to have no purpose begin to look like a pre or post human world. After the nutrition has been tugged from the soil for the last time nature breathes on in silence: “I am the grass. Let me work.”

Father James Lavelle who opens the film sitting in the confessional of his church, his weathered face concerned at the silence around him is about to be forced into this line of thought. The first line of dialogue comes from the man whose words the priest awaits: “I first tasted semen at the age of seven.” To keep composure, tough though he is, Lavelle says what we think: “Certainly a startling opening line.” The man beyond the screen proceeds to explain that his childhood abuser, a priest, is long dead and there is only futility in challenging the monolith of the church. So, he’ll kill a good priest which will cause even more of a stir. Lavelle has a week and a meeting place. So yeah, that opener really is a killer line.

These self-reflexive devices can grow tiresome in the wrong hands but here they are appropriate as, like Holbein’s warped skull they use the idiom of painting or picture-making the same way that the leadlight windows of a church can tell a story like the stations of the cross. Lavelle is about to embark on his own stagger to Calvary and will be served by vignettes and scenes in the same way. It is to this film’s great credit that while this can be obvious it is never oppressive or gratuitous.

So, along the way we meet an aging novelist who has failed to defy Donne’s law about being an island, slowly dying of despair on his rock home, begging the priest for the lend of a pistol. The new divorcee who’s playing the field to the point of bruising. The outsider accused of doing the bruising who denies the charge but is untroubled by it. The atheist doctor whose cynicism could disinfect the entire hospital who describes himself in similar terms. The rich man who taunts those around him by describing his possessions as expensive rather than beautiful. The serial killer who demands an audience not for contrition but from boredom. The daughter from the past life whose wrists are bandaged from the last bastard she smiled at more than once. The fellow priest who seems to have fallen into the role without vocation and preaches less than gossips. And so on. This can take on the brittle feel of a passion play with its parade of archetypes meant to cut through the shouts and raspberries of a village fair.

What stops it from falling into its own machine is a strong feel for the utility of performance and some bloody good writing.

We happily just keep looking at Brendan Gleason as he sits there against the wood panelling for minutes upon long screen minutes because he performs his waiting just shy of theatricality but more than he might otherwise for a different scene. We feel as though we are waiting with him. His careworn face covered by a beard which itself has surrendered to time and his outsize bulk give him the weight of a man who has fought, lost and returned. It is this rather than the dog collar that the friendless world outside the church will heed and he knows it. There are moments of sincere religious moment (the French widow) but this is a post Catholic Ireland without the cute eccentrics and loveable rogues. Gleason's gaze transmits his thoughts like a sci fi beam weapon and few character's speeches survive it. He will readily prevent an aired platitude by separating its truth from what he frequently pronounces its "nonsense". And he knows that if he can't talk his would be murderer out of it at showdown then he is almost dead and must do what he can to alleviate the pain that will survive him. Gleason's gravitas, tempered here and there by warmth, is not going to let up and from those few minutes of waiting, we are glad of it.

The rest of the cast please, too. Aiden Gillen (perhaps a little too recognisable from his Game of Thrones hair) shows his heartless Dr Harte to contain a rage as cold as his ice blue scrubs. Kelly Rielly's slowly healing hopelessness is subtle but genuine. But it's Dylan Moran who impresses most outside of Gleason's centre of gravity. Moran's detachment from his wealth and all other aspects of his life approaches anhedonia. Oddly enough it is he among the angered and dispossessed who will suffer most from the slow tearing scission happening on screen between Ireland and Catholicism, less from a need for spiritual guidance than a communal foundation and a listening ear. His rich man will never pass through the eye of the needle and he's only just understanding it now. This couldn't be further from the loveable grump Bernard Black who at least took pleasure in a good glass of red. The coldness in the character could have been dreamed up by Beckett.

This film that refers to religion rather than expresses it might turn some potential audiences away with its passion play archetypes and notions of sin but like all good westerns (it's even set in the west of Ireland) and sincere religious literature, it offers its story ethics first. If Fr James Lavelle is Christlike enough to warrant a personal Calvary then he is the Christ of Breughel, the one who could jig with the best of them at the local tavern, curse the money lenders in the language of the stall holder, tuck into the fatted calf, dig for tubers in the shit-rich soil and hug like a bear when comfort was more important than scripture. For this religion-proof bum on a seat Calvary will probably make the year's top ten.

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