The Catholic Church and priests often get a bad rap thanks to the numerous hypocrisies and scandals that just now seem to be emerging against the church.
And every once in a while you would hear a story of an innocent person that was killed or something of that nature that would make even the most aloof person tear just a little.
Well that’s exactly how Calvary starts. The film starts out with Brendan Gleeson as Father James in a confessional, listening to one of his parishioners state that he was raped by a priest as a child, and since that priest is dead, he has come to kill Father James. Better yet, the person states that he would go after James because he is a good priest who has done nothing wrong. Given a week by his not so mysterious killer, James tries to help make amends with his estranged daughter as well as somehow bring all of his parishioners together, not by forgiving them of their sins, but by trying to get them to stop committing the sins in the first place – and often to no avail.
Calvary was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, who came up with the idea, while he was filming his previous film collaboration with Gleeson in The Guard. Calvary also stars Kelly Reilly as Father James’ daughter Fiona, Chris O’Dowd as one of the town’s troubled parishioners Jack, Aidan Gillen as the town’s atheist doctor, M. Emmet Walsh as a dying writer, and may more colorful people who add to the film’s message. The film is one of the most thought provoking films of this decade. The actors play off one another so genuinely, and with the added benefit of having such a small cast that the audience is given knowledge about each and every one, the film drags you in to actually live out each day the priest has to live. McDonagh ravishingly combines both humor and a dark, sickening truth that only aids each actor’s performance and leads to the ultimate outcome of a flawless movie.
One should absolutely drop everything to go see the film as it shows the problems of the Catholic church (which is all too apparent in today’s society), through the story of this seemingly ordinary man in a small town in Ireland. The film doesn’t preach. It doesn’t ask you to be better person or do good deed, but rather the film insights you to just think about your actions.
The Source was invited to interview McDonagh, Gleeson and Reilly, who all spoke highly of the film and the dark undertones in which the film is full of. You can read more from the interview below.
How did you tackle some of these troubling issues within the movie?
John Michael McDonaugh: In terms of writing, I don’t really think about the ramifications of what I have written. And I think that the actors should just play the characters and not play the scenes, so that’s the way we approached it. You’re playing human beings and that was the story, so that was the approach.
And how did you two (Reilly and Gleeson) act with the larger issue?
Brendan Gleeson: Of the larger issue? No not really – I grew up there so the whole scenario was immediately familiar. We had talked about, I guess, how difficult it is for a man to maintain this sense of commitment to the clothe when there’s been such heinous things committed and things like that so not that we were blind to the issues, but as it emerged, the script was very very dense and there were so many paths that you could follow and I remember being absolutely exhausted at the end of the reading when all the different actors came in because everyone had brought something to it. There’s no questioning the level of intensity that was involved. But every stage grew into itself, you know what I mean? So it wasn’t something that you would say we would do this and we would do that, it was, even though we had preparation, we were allowed and it was kind of a testament to John’s leadership as well and his collaborative methods that we found things inside – every time we went to film we found new stuff.
Kelly Reilly: I think my character – she’s, luckily I think, not part of this community so she walks into a different energy. She doesn’t even know the world that he exists and these different people in this community. I think she says after Veronica in the café that “You have to put up with this shit on a regular basis.” Quite frankly, I think she would have taken her out. And actually, in one version of the scene, she did. Do you remember [looks over to Gleeson and McDonagh]? She [Veronica] said something quite provocative to him [James] and she [Fiona] took it upon herself to say “Excuse me. You know that he can’t respond, but I certainly can.” And I love that about her, but I don’t know why it didn’t make the cut.
McDonagh: Well if you look at those big emotional scenes between Brendan and Kelly’s characters, they’re not to do with any of the scandals, they’re to do with personal issues. They’re the most moving sequences in the movie.
What brought you to the project?
McDonagh: Well the general idea was to tell a story about a good person, and not be ironic because there’s too much irony in movies these days. I’m a bit ironic myself but the intent was to get a little bit away from that. To have a completely sincere leading character. And this developed into “Well, there’s probably going to be a lot of movies that are made about these scandals, let’s make it about a good priest rather than a bad one. It’s a way of flipping it on its head. So that was the initial discussion. It just grew from there.
Gleeson: Yeah, and with me the fascination as a character thing was imagine being a good man when we were chatting in the early stages of being a priest – there were two priests that we knew of accused of pedophilia in the wrong and I said, “God almighty, imagine having to commit your life to something that is positive and then to be besmirched with this.” You never recover from that kind of accusation – the way people think of you is shattered – there’s always someone who’s going to think there’s no smoke without fire. Have you maintained faith or anything in that regard? So that’s why I came to the film.
Like The Guard, this film had a lot of funny moments. Was it difficult to have the humor in regard to the dark film?
McDonagh: I can’t speak to the actors, but as a writer, I don’t think too much about it – I write very quickly. I like to get done with this as quickly as possible because it’s a very boring career sitting in a room for three or four hours every day.
Gleeson: You’re talking to writers.
McDonagh: So I like to just sit down and churn it all out in a spacing of three weeks if I can. I only start thinking about those kinds of, let’s say tonal balance in the editing sweep. And it would be a case of “Ok, there are three incredibly dark scenes in a row. Maybe we should shift them around and have some light relief in between.” And there is this sort of episodic nature in the script and in the movie and I knew in the writing I could shift that without leaving the narrative flow of it. I could move scenes around. How you play it, I guess the actors played the character rather than the tonal shifts.
Gleeson: Yeah I think it’s an aspect of it anyway. Certainly the tone – it’s a big thing you know. This great hilarity at funerals and things like that. And its own cathartic way of easing a little bit of tension out of something. Like the issue out of Fiona and myself, they share this soul mate ship that has been fractured and lost its way and one of the things they do is make each other laugh, as a banter. And it’s coming with a little curl at the end of the mouth.
Reilly: And it reveals how well they know one another and how similar they are. And I think it’s a useful tool to relieve the pressure of any kind of discomfort.
Gleeson: Yeah I mean they’re in the trauma aren’t they? And so it happens a lot and people say it’s really hard to piece the humor in these sort of things you know? And they manage to get this sort of “funny haha, half funny, half serious” whatever the phrase is. And even when the barbs come through, the tenderness can be facilitated and it becomes integral I certainly don’t split them up. You know what I mean? It’s part of the way you manage getting through this murk.
How do you stand that common ground of being judgmental and not judging people?
Gleeson: Well at one point the priest does say that he is judgmental but he tries not to be.
McDonagh: I think specifically the scene where he goes to the rich man’s house, Fitzgerald. I think that was originally written as a confrontational scene. And Brendan said, “You know, he’s still trying to help the guy and save him, so I don’t think he would react as confrontationally as you’ve written it. I think we kind of finessed the dialogue over there and dealt with it that way. I mean the priest is a good man but he’s very assertive and he’s ready to constantly put down people who are threatening him or verbally try to abuse him. So he’s not a weak character, he’s not a naïve character- he’s a direct opposite of the other priest who’s basically a pointless priest.
Gleeson: I think there’s a case there, particularly a death threat that focuses the mind and I think he was that way anyway but he lives life where he doesn’t sweat the small things and a lot of things that happens now that I’m not sure if you could actually sanction that. Like when he’s talking to Milo and asks “Have you used porn rather than actually killing people?” So I do say that he doesn’t sweat-
Reilly: I also like it because he wasn’t always a priest. He became a priest later. He is a big bloated man who has a child who’s been married. That’s what makes him so extraordinary.
Gleeson: It gives time to open the door – he wasn’t a naïve seminary who only knew his prayers – he was somebody who had experienced life so he doesn’t sweat the small stuff. Whether that’s acceptable within the Catholic Church or not, I’m not that sure. So that was kind of the dialogue that was going on. But I think what’s interesting for people who are Catholic, they kind of wish priests would be a bit more like that.
Well this being part two of your trilogy, do you have any plans for what’s coming next?
McDonagh: I actually have the script in my head, I’ve got the third one planning that I’m hoping to write this year, and it’s going to be about a spectacularly abusive paraplegic. So Brendan would be in a wheelchair in South London going around – he hates anyone who’s able bodied. So he basically hates the entirety of society. Which I guess that comes from me. And it will be a dark comedy and it will have a crime because he tries to get his life together by solving the murder of his disabled friends because he believes the police aren’t investigating it properly since the guy was disabled. That’s the overall sort of thing and I’ll probably sit down to start the thing in the first quarter of next year. It’s called The Lion Shall Enter First which I stole from a Flannery O’Connor short story.
Have you been preparing for this?
McDonagh: Yeah, he’s [Gleeson] been sitting around a lot.
Gleeson: Well I like to think that I have fantastic reservoirs of bile that I can kind of tap into.
Calvary is now playing.