In the worst village in Ireland, perhaps in the world, a man faces a priest (Brendan Gleeson) in a confessional, his face blurred by the screen. Rather than the usual litany of dismal sins, the man announces that he had been molested by a priest for years as a boy. Now someone was going to have to pay. And since the priest who violated him was long dead, and killing a bad priest would not make a big enough impression to express his rage, he was going to kill a good one instead — namely, the priest he was confessing to. He would grant him seven more days to live.
So begins the emotionally powerful, potentially controversial new film “Calvary,” written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, brother of Martin McDonagh of “In Bruges” (2008) fame. The film opens in Boston on Friday.
Gleeson — appropriately garbed in clerical black — and McDonagh sit in a conference room at a hotel in Boston, where they have been conducting interviews promoting the film. They are both in high spirits. The film has debuted in Ireland, home of Dublin native Gleeson and where London resident McDonagh was born, and they are pleased by the response.
“It’s opened really well,” says McDonagh.” It’s not going to play as long as ‘The Guard’ [McDonagh’s 2011 directorial debut about an unconventional Irish cop, played by Gleeson, working with an FBI agent on a drug smuggling investigation] but it’s not that type of movie. ‘The Guard’ was an easier sell. You can sell it as a buddy-buddy black comedy, though there’s more to it than that. But this is more complex.”
“The people who saw [the new film] were deeply affected,” adds Gleason. “And there were a lot of intelligent responses. Everyone had their own personal relationship with it. I just wanted people not to reject it because it’s difficult to watch. I really wanted us at home [in Ireland] to be mature enough to give it a chance. But even people who didn’t like it wanted to speak about what annoyed them. It wasn’t just a film that could be ignored or dismissed.”
Some viewers have been put off by the unlikely scenario that one tiny town in breathtakingly beautiful County Sligo could be inhabited by so many awful people. It makes the mean-spirited village in Robert Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” (1951) — to which “Calvary” has been compared and whose influence McDonagh has acknowledged — look like Disney’s Main Street, USA. The only genuinely decent characters, besides the priest and his daughter (he is a widower who joined the priesthood after his wife died), are a French tourist, an expat American writer, and an altar boy — and even he steals communion wine.
“People say this is an exaggeratedly bad representation of Ireland and you wouldn’t find all these mad people in one village,” Gleeson acknowledges. “Which may be true but it is a movie after all and it tries to deal with things truthfully without putting a veil over everything. There’s no denying the magnificence of the landscape out there, but within it these human stories and tragedies are all happening.”
Others might object — especially here in Boston, where the clergy abuse scandal first made headlines — that the film seems to be reversing the roles of victim and perpetrator. The good guy is a priest. And the bad guy is someone violated by a priest who has been traumatized by the experience.
“That could be a reading of it,” admits McDonagh. “We haven’t heard that yet so far. Maybe people have commented on their websites about it. But I haven’t heard that in the critics’ responses.”
“I had some people saying to me: You left them [the clergy] off the hook,” says Gleeson. “I don’t think we did. I think it was all presented there. But it’s not an easy thing to get right. John was absolutely fearless in the way he wrote it — not despairing, not judgmental, not accusatory. I think what we do is ask questions.”
“I’ve had a lot of people thanking me for not demonizing the figure of the priest,” McDonagh adds. “Because I think what a lot of people are expecting when you’re making a movie about a priest dealing with these issues is a complete takedown. Which it is, in a way, but it’s not a takedown of spiritual faith.”
Though the victim of abuse plots an evil deed, Gleeson does not think he is depicted as an evil person. He credits the performance of the actor in the role (name withheld here, to avoid spoilers) for evoking sympathy and elevating his character into a tragic figure.
“[His] performance is such that [it’s] impossible to demonize the character,” Gleeson insists. “You could see his pain.”
Given the title — “Calvary” is the name of the hill in Jerusalem, also called Golgotha, where Christ was crucified — a messianic interpretation of the film seems inevitable. Gleeson’s priest offers himself up as a sacrifice to redeem the sins of his fellow clergy, and of just about everyone else in town.
McDonagh says that he was originally going to structure his film according to the Stations of the Cross, the 12 episodes in the passion of Christ traditionally represented in images for the purpose of worship. “That’s too many stations,” he says. “It would make a much longer movie, like a Lars Von Trier film in 12 chapters.”
Instead he went with a briefer, more secular framework.
“I based it on the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief,” he explains. So it’s shock, denial, anger, depression, and acceptance. That was the loose framework I had. It helps in shaping the script and seeing the movement. And so when you’re beginning the third act you know he’s got to be at his lowest point. But then you’ve got to get to acceptance. It gives you that structure.”
So, the practicalities of structuring a three-act movie aside, which side do Gleeson and McDonagh lean toward? The religious or the secular? Both men were raised as Catholics, but prefer not to go into much detail about their personal beliefs.
“I deliberately don’t tell what I do or don’t believe in,” says Gleeson. “Otherwise, when people see the film they’ll say, well, that’s from the agenda of a Catholic. Or, that’s a raving atheist trying to tell us what a priest is. So I don’t want people to know.”
McDonagh is more forthcoming. “I believe there is a God beyond us but, as is mentioned in the film, that could just be the fear of death. However, I agree with Brendan about not revealing too much about myself because it colors some critical reviews.”
In his films, though, McDonagh’s attitude toward matters sacred and profane resemble those of brother Martin, whose “In Bruges” also starred Gleeson as a weary mob hit man laying low in the quaint Belgian city of the title. Understandably, John doesn’t welcome comparisons, though the sibling rivalry seems mostly put on. (“So you interviewed Martin?” he says. “Kind of dull, wasn’t he?”)
The two filmmakers do share common themes, obsessions, and characteristics. Priests being threatened with death in a confessional provides the starting point for both “In Bruges” and “Calvary.”
“I had actually forgotten about that scene until somebody brought it up,” says McDonagh. “I was annoyed.”
“Was it Martin?” Gleeson teases.
John McDonagh hopes to further distinguish himself from his brother with his next film, the third in what he calls a “Glorified Suicide Trilogy.” It’s about a policeman in a wheelchair — played by Gleeson — seeking the killer of a murdered friend in London.
“John wants to confuse people,” says Gleeson. “The previous films featured a policeman and a priest and so everyone thought for sure the third would be a politician. But it’s another policeman.”
“A paraplegic policeman,” adds McDonagh.
“A paraplegic policeman,” Gleeson muses playfully, “who’s a former priest.”
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.