Calvary, film review: John Michael McDonagh's religious comedy is just heavenly

(15) Dir. John Michael McDonagh; Starring Brendan Gleeson, Chris O'Dowd, 101mins

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The Independent Culture

John Michael McDonagh's follow-up to The Guard is another wry comedy starring Brendan Gleeson as an outsider within his own rural Irish community. But it is a darker and far more thoughtful story that tackles mortality, Catholicism and wider notions of sin and redemption head on. "Basically," the writer-director has joked, it is "Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest with a few gags thrown in."

It opens in the confessional. From the other side of the grille, a parishioner tells Father James Lavelle (Gleeson) that he was raped by a Catholic priest as a child, and that he wants payback. A week from Sunday, he is going to commit a similarly heinous crime. “I'm going to kill you because you're innocent,” the man says.

Father Lavelle spends the week patching up his relationship with his daughter and tending to his parish. He is sincere in his vocation; a man of integrity, wit and no little wisdom. His parishioners, meanwhile, played by a mixture of Irish comedy talent (Chris O'Dowd, Dylan Moran, Pat Shortt) and international character actors (M Emmet Walsh, Isaach de Bankolé) are a troubled lot – adulterers, wife-beaters, male prostitutes, psychopaths, drug-users, atheists and bankers – whom McDonagh suggests have been betrayed and embittered by the Catholic child abuse scandal and the Irish financial collapse.

Apart from a slight self-conscious tendency to comment upon itself, McDonagh's script is a fabulous bit of writing with the tidy structure and mythical resonance of a passion play, but idiosyncratic and funny in all of its detail. It is a script that abhors cliché and searches for nuance. And most nuanced of all is the character of Father Lavelle, who is brilliantly and fully inhabited by Gleeson, and single-handedly capable of rescuing the church's reputation as a repository of human wisdom and salvation.