In 1953, Alfred Hitchcock adapted a French play, ‘Nos Deux Consciences’ by Paul Anthelme Bourde for the cinema.
It became ‘I Confess’ with Montgomery Clift as a Catholic priest in Quebec City who hears the confession of a man who has killed a lawyer during a robbery.
Father Logan soon becomes a suspect during the investigation conducted by Karl Malden’s detective because he won’t break his vow of silence around the confessional.
While the concept was daring for a Hollywood film, Hitchcock actually wanted his story to be even more groundbreaking.
The director had contemplated a revelation that prior to the priesthood, Father Logan had fathered an illegitimate child but he lost a battle with the censors during pre-production.
Had Hitchcock and the censors had the ability to travel 61 years into the future, it would have been fascinating to see what they would have made of John Michael McDonagh’s latest feature film, ‘Calvary’.
Not so much a whodunnit but more of a whowilldoit, McDonagh’s thriller begins in a confessional in a church in Easky, Co Sligo.
But it also gets off the ground with one of the most brutal and startling opening lines of any movie.
“I was seven years old when I tasted semen for the first time,” we hear a voice say but we don’t see who actually delivers it.
Instead the camera focusses exclusively on Brendan Gleeson’s priest Father James Lavelle who is told by a member of his congregation that he was repeatedly raped as a boy by another priest.
The disturbed parishioner informs Father Lavelle that he will avenge this crime by killing him a week from Sunday – even though he had nothing to do with the horrific crimes perpetrated by the other priest.
Killing a good priest, his tormentor reckons, would send out an even more powerful message than killing a bad one.
With just over a week to put his affairs in order and prepare for the showdown on the local strand, McDonagh follows Father Lavelle as he tends to his disillusioned and angry parishioners.
In past Irish movies, the priest was the pillar of the local community but this is no longer the Ireland of John Ford’s ‘The Quiet Man’.
In McDonagh’s contemporary Ireland, the inhabitants are openly contemptuous of the Church and they wear their hostility and bitterness as a badge of pride.
In this Ireland, Orla O’Rourke’s Veronica cuckolds her husband, a butcher played by Chris O’Dowd, and then pathetically tries to taunt her parish priest by flirting with him.
In this Ireland, Isaach de Bankole’s immigrant casually admits he uses Veronica for sexual gratification and tells Father Lavelle that Irish women get a kick out of being slapped.
In this Ireland, O’Dowd’s husband appears on one level accepting of his wife’s promiscuity – even playing chess in the local pub with one of her lovers – and also spouts racist comments.
In this Ireland, Gary Lydon’s Garda inspector openly uses a rent boy who speaks with a fake Brooklyn accent, played by Owen Sharpe, and he contemptuously shoves the other parish priest, played by David Wilmot, in front of locals in the village pub.
In this Ireland, Domhnall Gleeson’s confused serial killer seeks absolution while gleefully boasting to Father Lavelle that watching someone you murder die makes you feel like God.
In this Ireland, Killian Scott’s socially awkward young man tells the priest he has a collection of hardcore pornography and wants to join the army as he is full of rage because of his inability to chat up women.
In this Ireland, Aiden Gillen’s bitter coke snorting doctor casually dismisses suicide and boasts after the death of a tourist that he likes to seduce widows.
In this Ireland, Dylan Moran’s depressed and disgraced financier crudely flaunts his wealth and offers the Church money not out of any sincere act of charity but because he can.
In this Ireland, Pat Shortt’s angry barman berates the priest for the Church’s failure to denounce banks from the pulpit for foreclosing on businesses like his.
At the centre of all this, Father Lavelle bears the brunt of his parishioners’ anger with saintly fortitude whilst also trying to tend to his estranged daughter played by Kelly Reilly – he was married prior to the priesthood.
But as the week wears on, even Father Lavelle begins to feel the strain.
All of this makes ‘Calvary’ sound very grim but McDonagh’s movie is anything but.
As in his previous feature ‘The Guard’, McDonagh’s superbly crafted screenplay wrings a lot of macabre humour out of dark situations.
Don’t expect ‘Fr Ted’, however. This is barbed humour with massive spikes attached.
If anything, McDonagh’s movie is more like an Irish Western – not unlike Jim Sheridan’s ‘The Field’ but darker and funnier.
In that film, Sean McGinley’s priest was the moral bastion of his community like Father Lavelle but even he did not face the animosity that Gleeson’s character is subjected to.
Father Lavelle is treated so poorly by his fellow villagers that he is an outcast.
Not only do the locals sneer at him in the local pub but an attempt to engage a young child visiting Easky in friendly conversation is misconstrued by her father who berates the priest as if he is paedophile.
Father Lavelle is made to feel so unwelcome he resembles Alan Ladd’s hero in George Stevens’ 1953 classic western ‘Shane’ or even Spencer Tracy’s John J McCready in John Sturgess’s classic 1955 thriller ‘Bad Day At Black Rock’.
Brendan Gleeson rises to the occasion once again in the lead role – anchoring the movie with a performance of tremendous integrity and decency as the date of his possible crucifixion approaches.
With his bushy beard and lived in features, you do not doubt for a moment the authenticity and sincerity in Gleeson’s performance and he again demonstrates his generosity as an actor – allowing his fellow cast members to also shine.
Gillen, Moran, Shortt, O’Dowd, Scott and de Bankole all turn in strong performances as possible suspects in a potential murder. To their credit, even if you have your suspicions early on as to who the potential killer may be, each actor does enough to plant a scintilla of doubt in your mind.
Hollywood veteran M Emmet Walsh is impressive as an elderly American writer who enjoys a warm friendship with Lavelle, while Lydon, Wilmot and Sharpe from ‘The Guard’ make a welcome return with their respective roles.
Orla O’Rourke is impressively trashy as Veronica and it is delightful to see Michael Og Lane, who was so memorable as a wild kid with an old man’s face in ‘The Guard’, turning up as an altar boy.
Brendan Gleeson’s son Domhnall has a chilling cameo as the serial killer who Father Lavelle visits in prison.
However special plaudits should go to Kelly Reilly who is wonderful as Lavelle’s fragile daughter, struggling with her mother’s death and also losing a father to the priesthood not long afterwards.
There is a convincing tenderness between the priest and his daughter and her scenes with Gleeson are a joy to watch.
From a technical perspective, McDonagh’s film is expertly paced and beautifully shot.
Cinematographer Larry Smith turns the Sligo coastline into a lush, green, rain sodden Irish version of the Wild West.
For much of the movie there are static cameras, artfully constructed angled shots and plenty of long takes like the westerns of old and he is helped along by Chris Gill’s astute editing which allows the action to naturally unfold.
As in ‘The Guard’, McDonagh’s production designer Mark Geraghty’s interiors have vibrant colours that leap out of the screen at you while composer Patrick Cassidy’s musical score captures the solemn tone.
McDonagh’s cleverest trick is his screenplay’s playful self awareness – his characters talk with a nod and a wink about narrative techniques and cliches.
But his greatest achievement is his ability to marry a clear love of language with striking visual imagery.
The film shines an uncomfortable light on a secular Ireland which has gone from one extreme to another – from an unquestioning devotion to Catholicism to an unquestioning hostility towards it.
While it understands the anger, it calls for restraint.
‘Calvary’ has raised the bar for cinema this year. It will take a stunning film to better it.
(‘Calvary’ opens in the Queen’s Film Theatre in Belfast and other UK and Irish cinemas on April 11, 2014).