By David Hennessy
“I first tasted semen when I was 7 years old,” is the shocking start to John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary. Unsurprisingly Brendan Gleeson’s Father James is stuck for words as the unseen man tells of his abuse by a priest and how in his mind it justifies killing Gleeson’s character despite his innocence. James is given a week: “Killing a priest on a Sunday. That’ll be a good one,” his tormentor says before leaving the confessional.
Calvary tells the story of that week in Father James’ life with each day taking him closer to his appointment with a man who has sworn to kill him. A sterling cast that includes Aidan Gillen, Chris O’Dowd, Dylan Moran as parishioners who go to no effort to mask their contempt for the priest which explains why the only person he tells of the threat is a bishop who leaves it up to James, washing his hands of it like Pontius Pilot.
Writer and director John Michael McDonagh told The Irish World: “Calvary is the place where Jesus was crucified but it’s also the journey he took to get there, it’s the burdens that are placed upon him and how he responds to that pressure and at certain times, the priest falters and he loses his nerve: ‘Will he see it through? Will he lose his nerve all the way to the end or will he come back?’ That’s the journey that you’re taking the audience on.
“The whole structure of the script is based around the five stages of grief. The first is denial, then there’s anger, bargaining, depression and then finally acceptance. That was my general overview when I was writing the script and that’s loosely how the film is structured maybe not in that order but those are the five movements in the movie.”
Although McDonagh’s last film, the very successful The Guard which starred Gleeson with Don Cheadle, was pitch black in its humour, Calvary goes into even darker territory. It’s impossible not to notice that his well meaning priest is as far from his confrontational Sergeant Boyle. Conscious or subconscious, the character and film were a natural reaction to news stories being aired around the time McDonagh and Gleeson were shooting the first film.
“It was the last night of the shoot in Galway, we all got a bit pissed and towards the end of the night, Brendan and I were talking about what we should do next because we had obviously become friends and got along well, and I just said: ‘I bet there’s gonna be lots of movies coming out about bad priests giving all the scandals and everything. We should do the exact opposite, we should make a film about a good priest’. Of course then, you’ve got to go away and write the bloody thing, but eventually came up with the plot and it all went quite smoothly and decided to do it.
“It would be too easy to do the bad priest story, that’s what everyone would be expecting. There’s a scene near the end of the movie where a guy stops the car and starts berating the priest and it’s because the way a priest is dressed, you can spot them a mile off. They can’t hide now and it’s that terrible situation where you know the majority of priests enter the priesthood because they want to do good work but now they’ve become so tarred with the same brush that just the way they look, it becomes suspicious. It must be a terrible thing to leave your house every day knowing that people have suspicions about you. It’s quite horrifying if you think about it in that way.
Indifferent to the priest and religion, many of the town’s people try to provoke him illustrating how much Ireland has changed. Calvary shows people talking to their local priest in ways people would never have dreamed of years ago: “The church had so much power, I think it’s a good thing that the church has less power but it’s the fact that it’s come about in the way it’s come about is the terrible thing especially in Ireland. The church is entwined with the state, it’s been far too prevalent the power the church had over the country but the fact that it’s been destroyed in the way it’s been destroyed is obviously quite depressing.
“I remember when we were shooting a scene from The Guard, there was a scene inside a church where Gerry Boyle’s talking to his mother, and I just asked some relatively innocuous religious question, and no one on the cast and crew could answer my question because nobody goes to mass anymore. And it wasn’t even the fact that nobody goes to mass anymore, they actually seemed embarrassed that if they knew the answer, it would imply that they’re some kind of country yokel who still goes to mass and that’s when I realised the situation the country was in as regards religion, and this was three or four years before I started thinking about Calvary.
“It’s almost as if having spirituality is something childish in some way: That you grow out of it. I think spirituality is a fine thing, whether you have to be part of an organised religion or not is up to your own conscience. The question of spirituality and why we’re here and what is our place in the universe: It’s a good thing to think about those things. I think it seems to me that the country’s just become a secular society. My dad doesn’t go to mass anymore, he’s in his seventies and he’s stopped going because of all the scandals. My mum still goes but I think she does it more out of a kind of ritual thing: Something to do on a Sunday, you meet the people in the town. Whether there’s that strong faith there any more, I think it’s almost gone now or it seems to me to be gone.”
“The subject is so depressing, how do you approach it? You want to get away from the whole depressing angle so the way I realised to do it was to have a kind of thriller backdrop so he’s threatened in the confessional in the beginning and the guy tells him he’s going to kill him in seven days so it’s not just some kind of boring, social realist drama about the scandals of the church, it’s about the characters and about what’s going to happen to him and how he deals with the threat and how he deals with everyone else in the town so you’re not dealing with the scandals head on, you’re approaching it obliquely.
“It’s set in Ireland but to me the film could take place in a small town in Spain or it could take place in a small town in Italy or a small town in Latin America, anywhere that there is religion that has taken a battering and anywhere that is in the middle of a recession which is virtually everywhere now. Obviously because of my London-Irish background, I’ve written a story that is set in Ireland but to me it’s a universal story, I’m not specifically examining Irish society, to me it should be universal, it should be as if this film could be remade in any of those countries.”
Although their straight acting abilities aren’t in doubt, the cast includes many that are often associated with comedy such as O’Dowd and Moran but also Pat Shortt and David McSavage: “When you cast actors like that audiences seem to assume they’re gonna get a certain thing and then when you go into really dramatic areas, they’re a bit shocked by it or they’re taken by surprise. You always kind of want to take an audience by surprise. I think comic actors are under-rated as dramatic actors and they like themselves to be given good meaty roles, good meaty scenes where they can surprise audiences.
“Specifically someone like Pat Shortt, who’s still really under-rated but, a few years ago he made a great film called Garage which he was terrific in, that was a brilliant dramatic performance but I guess he’s still perceived as being the guy from Killinaskully. He’s just done my brother’s play Cripple (of Inishman) which is on Broadway and he’s doing a new John Boorman film so I’m assuming his career is going to take off in a much more dramatic direction.
“Chris O’Dowd is deliberately seeking out more dramatic parts. He’s on Broadway as well, Of Mice and Men.
“Dylan Moran, I just think he’s terrific in the movie and I think we had kind of forgotten about him as a serious actor and it’s one of my favourite performances in the movie. When I decided I wanted to have a character dealing with the whole financial scandals, again I thought it’s going to be too easy to make that character the villain so what we do in the film is at the start we present him as a villain but by the end of it, he’s actually the only one really who wants to be helped, who’s actually suffering and genuinely seeks help. He’s no longer being ironic, he’s no longer insulting the priest, he actually wants the priest to help him. It’s too easy having a financier who’s a bad man. People aren’t really like that, there’s good and bad in everybody.”
Calvary is in cinemas from April 11.