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PHOTO CALVARYWhen writer/director John Micheal McDonagh had critical praise with The Guard, I was a bit surprised. The film certainly had it’s moments, but wasn’t nearly as good as many critics claimed. I’m happy to see that McDonagh has brought back Brendan Gleeson for the lead in this. It’s a movie that will make my top ten of the year.

Gleeson plays Father James Lavelle. He’s the type of guy everyone would like their priests to be; especially the guy who starts the movie threatening to kill him the following week. Why does he want to murder the one good man in this town of horrible people? Because the priest that molested him is dead, and killing a good priest would get more attention. We seem to believe this is more than just an idle threat. The reason he’s waiting a week is so the Father can get his affairs in order. When each day is counted down on screen for us, it’s a safe assumption that we’ll see something happening the following Sunday.

Since this happens in a confessional and we don’t see the face of the guy making the threat, some will watch this trying to figure out the culprit. I watched it as a character study, with a bunch of wacky folks that seemed like they were out of a Coen brothers film.

Gleeson’s performance is stunning. Just watching his facial expressions (which were also great in The Guard and…well, most movies he does); his beard and hair blowing in the breeze, and the gorgeous landscapes. We see the sea pounding roughly against the shore, the lush green. It’s all shot so well. Combining the visuals with the dialogue…it was poetry.

It’s not a really good week for Father James. Not just because of the threat, but his daughter (Kelly Reilly) has returned (he became a priest after his wife died). She has attempted suicide after a break-up in London. He’s also dealing with a woman (Orla O’Rourke) that taunts him with come-ons, and is being abused by her husband (Chris O’Dowd). When a visit is paid to O’Dowd, the town butcher, he explains it’s the mechanic (Isaach de Bankole) his wife is having an affair with. That means the father pays a visit to him. The mechanic asks if he’s being accused because of his race, before chuckling and saying that sometimes women ask for it.

There’s also an atheist doctor (Aidan Gillen) that always throws morbid jokes at the Father.

Prison guards don’t like him, because he goes to visit a man on death row (played by his real life son Domhnall Gleeson)

There’s a banker that has a whole host of problems. His wife and kids have left him, and he might do some jail time. He asks to speak to Father James, but it seems like it’s merely to toy with him (and urinate on expensive paintings in front of him).

Yet the Father takes it all in stride. It’s part of the job. He’s such an incredible good man; a pillar of the community. We get the feeling that he’s most bothered by a fellow priest (for reasons that become clear as the movie goes along).

My one complaint is that they went a bit far with all the eccentric characters in the town. The bleak gallows humor was fine, and it’s fine that this plays a dark comedy. Yet it needed just a bit of that toned down or rewritten a bit.

There were so many scenes in this movie that rank among the best I’ve seen all year. One shows a priest having a nice conversation with a child. It has a strangely shocking conclusion. I won’t give it away, but the hurt look on the faces of all involved is devastating.

I tried to recall a few of the funny scenes and the one that comes to mind is a young man that has complained to the Father about not having a girlfriend. He’s contemplating suicide, or joining the Army. He feels that his anger towards not having a girlfriend could serve him well in a war.

When those two meet up again at a pub, and Irish music is playing and everyone is dancing and jovial, the Father suggests he dance. The guy looks forlorn as he tells him, “I don’t like this music.”

He’s asked what kind of music he likes.

“Dolly Parton.”

There are other times you laugh at something, but realize how hurtful it was for a character to say. You go through many emotions while watching this film.

One critic told me he hated all the close-ups. I loved them.

This movie did almost everything right. Even the quotes. There’s one from Lilies of the Field that worked well. The movie also starts with this quote on screen: “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.”

It’s attributed to St. Augustine. I thought it was Waiting for Godot. Yet, I’m not very religious, which is one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed movies that can show religious characters in a more interesting light. It seems like a hack move for screenwriters to just give us the bad priests all the time. This is one who, despite sometimes cursing or drinking too much, is the type of guy you’d want in your church. Heck, he’s the type of guy you would want as the father in your church, or your father at home.

The film tackles many issues in a thought provoking and entertaining way.

It gets 4 ½ stars out of 5.


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