Five starsFrom the astonishing opening line that raises a guilty half-laugh (should I have found that funny?) to the shocking closing scene, Calvary is an intense and intensely moving film. The dialogue is consistently razor sharp, intelligent and often blackly funny; the acting strong throughout.

Exploring the role of the Catholic Church in a post-boom Ireland, Calvary questions the relevance of the old-style priest as community leader. It doesn’t let corrupt police officers or emotionally bankrupt rich financiers off the hook, either. Essentially we’re asked to reconsider what happens to notions of community when we’re all just in it for ourselves.

The title of the film, Calvary, lends a biblical inevitability to the story’s conclusion, so there can be no real spoilers here. This priest is a good man, betrayed by one of his followers, who must decide how he will react. He is tempted to run away rather than face his betrayer, but finds strength in the faith of others when his own is tested. Interestingly, the priest has come to his calling later in life, having previously been married (and widowed), with a daughter, so he’s not the lifelong celibate with no experience of life. Parallels with speculation about a certain carpenter’s son’s personal life are entirely intentional.

Brendan Gleason’s quite astounding portrayal of the priest shows us an innocent man, asked to pay for the sins of the guilty (in this case the priests guilty of child abuse, the Church complicit in quietly shuffling them off to another parish, another country). Unlike his fellow priest, straight out of seminary and rather naive, our man uses all the worldly knowledge he’s gained to try to improve the lives of others, even if it may not be quite in the way prescribed by the Church.

One man’s supreme personal sacrifice may help begin the healing of others, the rebuilding of a sense of community but, (as the montage during the end credits shows) the system’s still very much broken. If there’s to be any real possibility of redemption, the corruption of the entire system must be scourged. Now there’s a message for the Catholic Church – indeed, for all of us – to take home.

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