Calvary John McDonagh (2014 Uk Ire)

Calvary John McDonagh (2014 Uk Ire)

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Calvary John McDonagh (2014 UK Ire)
Brendan Glesson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly

Viewed: Tyneside Cinema 22 April 2014
Ticket £8 20

Forgive them father…

Calvary opens with a quote from St
Augustin about the fate of the two thieves crucified on Calvary on
either side of Jesus: that no presumptions should be made about the
fate of the first thief. A suggestion that inspired Sam Beckett’s
Godot. It is also the basis for the proposition that underlies
McDonagh’s film examining: the relations of hope to despair,
innocence to guilt, salvation to damnation. And Calvary is a rare
thing a film grounded in a proposition.

The core of the film is its ‘Rock’,
Brendan Glesson’s Father Lavelle, a good priest and a good enough
imperfect man. The film’s moment pivots on his performance: his
physicality his psychic integrity his energy. And Gleeson plays out
the scripted function of his role, that of holding the film together
as a theorem of cosmic relations, like one of the old heroes of Irish
myth.

The proposition that McDonagh’s script
puts to the audience is that an innocent has to die in order to
balance the psychic scales of evil. Christ – suffer little
children to come to me, died to save the sins of the world; Father
Lavelle will die to save the sins of the Church that suffered little
children to be buggered. An old story an innocent sacrificed in
propitiation to the powers that that oversee the playing out of the
life force. Calvary’s script, in its mapping of Lavelle’s
psychological movement towards his execution, is in step with
elemental religious and initiatory ideas about the path individuals
take when confronted by forces endemic in the nature of the world.

fear – questioning – rebelling –
rejecting – chaos – understanding – acceptance – compassion –
forgiveness

denial of self
Steps of this kind were taken by
Christ as he moved towards the cross. In terms of today’s lifestyle
ideologies that stress ‘overcoming’ not acceptance, ‘self assertion’
over acquiescence, they are less than fashionable. But it is the way
that Lavelle chooses.

But it is not just that the moment of
Fr Lavelle that is unfashionable in an aspirational culture. The
metaphysical connections that link his fate to the fate of his killer
Brennan oppose Western rationalism. The purpose of a rational
system of justice is to establish: that a crime has been committed,
to find the offender and to punish them for their acts. These
linkages are the crux of contemporary justice, the basis justifying
law and punishment. Calvary invokes another order of Justice. Its
explores another inner human urge: to tear open the curtain of reason
and to find a more primal idea of justice. One for which Necessity
not rationality, defines the nature and the form of Justice.
Necessity as a quasi judicial formulation is of course derided (but
of course often resorted to, in disguised fashion, by established
judiciaries) but the derision betrays the fear of the friends of
rationality that the forces that drive ‘necessity justice’ lurk at
the edge of the shadows of our nature, ready to enter the light as
soon as vigilance wavers.

The metaphysical notion of necessity is
well symbolised by the scales of justice. The idea that there is
such a thing as cosmic balance. That such a balance can be put out
of true by events or occurrences, and that humans as significant
elements in the cosmos can play a central role in the realignment of
the scales. Human sacrifice stands as one example of the logic of
law of necessity. A victim is needed: a victim does not have to be
the guilty party. Sometimes necessity prefers a virgin or an
innocent representative to rebalance the scales; another victim to
mediate the reharmonising of our psychic and physical state with the
cosmos. A restoring agent.

There are signs that not only in
religious psychology but in our own basic responses that something of
this response is hardwired into our brains.

McDonagh as writer understands
‘necessity’, and that it is the central idea in his script. But he
seems to be a little embarrassed by it as a film maker. Embarrassed
to the extent that this idea so cogently stated in the confessional
scene becomes progressively overlaid by other images in the main body
of the film, only emerging in clarity in the penultimate beach
sequence. For much of the film Lavelle seems lost in a comic book
world of contemporary stereotypes; abandoned by the film in a series
of partially misfiring comic cameos.

McDonagh substitutes a new grouping of
moral mutants to replace the old standby caste of traditional Irish
Country dwellers. Father Ted’s congregation has been superseded by
characters transposed from the world of Irving Welsh. They are
larger than life and scripted to provoke canned studio audience
laughter.

The main body of his movie suggests
that McDonagh hasn’t thought about the nature of film: that you can’t
script two big ideas at work simultaniously through the same material
without having a filmic solution. His idea of Lavelle and his idea
of a ‘Welshian Ireland’ with all its moral implications, cannot just
be spliced together as one entity. To succeed in interweaving two
themes you need to think in terms of film, and how film holds ideas
together. On the basis of Calvary, McDonagh doesn’t understand this.

Glesson holds his ground amidst this
Channel 4 type bean fest but his presence is too often swamped and
overwhelmed. The film, mostly shot like a situation comedy,
struggles to find a filmic form to make the encounters anything more
than obtrusive cameos that disengage the viewer from the film.
These sequences often seem little more than a opportunity for writer
director McDonagh to flaunt his skills at one liners and stand up
repartee, rather than carve the film out into its own space.

As mentioned above the delimiting
factor of Calvary is the manner in which it is shot. It is shot
like sit com. This can be an inflexible structure for a film with
thematic propositions, as the material has no unifying hub; the edits
flit from face to face scene to scene shot to reaction creating an
agitation that is difficult to control. McDonagh seems to have
fallen for the current fashion of interposing long landscape shots in
films, so show that the film maker is in touch with nature or natural
forces. In this case the conceit only leads to confusion in the
audience, a feeling that they may have zapped the remote to an Irish
Tourist Board promo. There are of course many ways in which Calvary
could have been worked filmically: a point of view, a voice, a
shooting style that invoked a ‘seeing’ in the viewer. As it is
McDonagh took the line of least resistance, and the film pays the
price.

Adrin Neatrour
adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

Author: Adrin Neatrour

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