Soutane impact: Brendan Gleeson and John Michael McDonagh on Calvary

Brendan Gleeson plays a Catholic priest threatened with murder in the actor’s provocative new collaboration with director John Michael McDonagh. Just don’t call it a ‘little gem’…

Samuel Wigley
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Extract from Calvary (2014)

After making a splash with his feature debut, The Guard (2011), the most commercially successful independent Irish film ever made, John Michael McDonagh has reteamed with actor Brendan Gleeson for the second part in what they’re calling ‘the suicide trilogy’.

Calvary begins with one of the most striking opening scenes in any film this year: in a confession box, an unseen villager tells Father James Lavelle (Gleeson) he plans to kill him the following Sunday, as displaced revenge for the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of a clergyman as a child.

Thereby begins a gripping fusion of black comedy, mystery thriller, High Noon-style showdown suspense and weighty morality drama, as Father James spends the week visiting the spiritually jaded members of his parish to determine which of them it is who plans to murder him.

Meeting up with both the director and star, we heard how they’d had enough of “ironic, hipster movies” and why the time was right to go head to head with notions of faith, morality and the revelations of abuses in the Catholic church.

Calvary (2014)

Calvary (2014)

  • Spoiler warning! This interview reveals some plot details

Do you think calling these three films ‘the suicide trilogy’ gives too much away?

John Michael McDonagh: In The Guard, whether you believe Gerry Boyle’s alive at the end or not, when he goes down to the pier it’s a suicidal act. In Calvary, the daughter says that a Japanese writer (Akutagawa Ryunosuke) claims Christ’s death was a suicide. Does Father James have a sublimated death wish, that he wants to take on the burden of everybody’s sins? It could be seen as that, but in a meeting with Dylan Moran’s rich businessman character he says: “I’ll speak to you later.” So he’s still hoping. It’s ambiguous.

Brendan Gleeson: We always disagree about endings. The image I had in my mind making the film was the student protestor in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square. I feel Father James is trying to stop a tank, I don’t think he’s there to commit suicide. And I don’t think Christ nailed himself to the cross exactly, but he did come down to earth for a purpose. It comes down to internal motivation.

What are you most proud of about the film?

BG: That it so clearly expresses how abuse and paedophilia leads to life-long damage, and that you can’t simply apologise, you can’t cover up, or move on. I’m proud of the film for showing that in the most non-accusatory way. There was a massive sadness involved in it.

John Michael McDonagh filming Calvary (2014)

John Michael McDonagh filming Calvary (2014)

There’s a powerful scene where Father James bumps into the little girl walking into town, whose father then sees them together and reacts in a very hostile manner.

JMM: It’s a crucial moment because the character is pretty much emotionally destroyed at this point and it marks the beginning of the third act. I didn’t realise how shocking that scene would be watching it with an audience.

BG: I remember the pressure on that scene, we made the whole film in five weeks. Will somebody please tell the accountants that it’s not a good idea to make films in four or five weeks?

JMM: The problem is that if Calvary is a success they’ll say we can do it in four weeks next time!

BG: That scene – and the father’s reaction – is one of the most tragic scenes in the film. It means that for a priest, or even just a man, you can no longer talk to a youngster on the road because of how people will react to it. We are losing something very fundamental, and that accusation is a brilliant way of showing that it isn’t just faith that we are losing but an interaction between the generations.

JMM: The image of a priest, wearing a soutane walking alongside a young girl is now such a loaded image and there is no way of that being taken in an innocent way anymore.

Calvary (2013)

Calvary (2013)

The film harkens back to Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess and Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest in its depiction of a priest under duress. Were those films an influence or did you want to move on from them?

JMM: I Confess (1953) I have always felt was an underrated Hitchcock film, and that image of Montgomery Clift in a soutane I always thought was very strong. I wanted to take that hoary old cliché of somebody being told something in a confessional and use that as the start of the movie. Ingmar Bergman also had a really good film about a priest: Winter Light (1963).

Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

I Confess (1953)

I Confess (1953)

I had seen Diary of a Country Priest before, along with all of Bresson’s films, but I watched it again as we went into production and I was shocked to see there were so many similar elements to what we were doing, with the townsfolk all being nasty. At least a few of the characters in ours are looking for spiritual recompense. I realised though that there aren’t many films any more that deal with death the whole way through. I also realised that the main character in that is quite naive and a bit annoying.

BG: Completely. He acts like he never got passed his first holy communion and feels about seven years old. You just want him to grow up! 

Calvary deals with life as well, and whether goodness is possible. It goes beyond Catholicism. The image of soutane is very striking, very mythic. I thought of it as a samurai putting on his armour and what it represents. I remember as a child looking at a priest wearing the soutane and thinking that represents love, that represents good. What you believe makes life worth living. My belief about all the other characters is that they want to be validated in their cynicism, while at the same time wanting their sense of romanticism to be reawakened.

JMM: They want the priest to save them, really.

What is the view of the church in Ireland at the moment?

BG: Complex! Really complex.

JMM: My father doesn’t go to mass anymore and he’s in his 70s, which is odd because normally people get more religious as they get older, as they’re facing death. Since the scandal though, he stopped going. If someone like him has stopped going, it shows that religion’s really on its way out.

Calvary (2014)

Calvary (2014)

BG: It’s impossible to ignore what is happening. Some people are saying that it is the messenger rather than the message that is being corrupted. People are conflicted and it’s going to be interesting to see what the reaction is to the film in Ireland. But it’s a more universal film than that. I think most of the western world has a problem filling the gap that has been left by dumping these spiritual or religious notions. Why are Biblical themes, and notions of good and evil, as with Noah (2014), so common in cinema at the moment? I think there is a turn happening. We’ve had 30 years of the antihero and the rebel, and that’s become institutional and uninteresting now. It’s like rock ‘n’ roll: how much actual rebellion is there in rock ‘n’ roll? Not a lot! There’s a lot of commerce. So now people are looking for heroes and good guys.

Would you say that the characters that surround the priest in Calvary are looking for that sense of spirituality?

BG: Yes. If they had no feeling at all, they’d just ignore him. Most of them still go to mass, so you have to ask what are they doing there? Is it just because nothing else is going on? Or out of habit? It might all swing around again; you’re seeing that in America at the moment. I don’t think that will happen in Europe. But it will be interesting to see how cinema reflects the situation. One of the reasons we did Calvary was because we thought there was going to be a whole bunch of films about bad priests now, but it didn’t happen.

JMM: There are a couple, like a film called Stations of the Cross, which was at the Berlin Film Festival. It’s like with Vietnam – the films about the war only started to come out 10 or 15 years after the events. With this issue, I think we’re still in the middle of dealing with the events.

Calvary (2014)

Calvary (2014)

With all these weighty themes, are you worried that Calvary might only appeal to arthouse audiences?

JMM: When I was writing it, I did assume it would be more for an arthouse audience. But then when we came to shoot it, once I saw the helicopter shots and the locations I realised this is actually a big, very visual movie. An event movie, not a ‘little gem’ – I always say I hate those films! If it says ‘little gem’ on a poster, I avoid the film. The film is dark and heavy, but I think it’s also entertaining – in the same way that Nick Cave is entertaining with his murder ballads.

BG: It’s very engaging. Somebody described it to me as the kind of film that you’ll be arguing about in the lobby afterwards, and that to me is a good night out.

JMM: We didn’t want to make a film where people would walk and say: “That was ok. Let’s go and get a burger.”

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