To believe or not to believe: That is the question of religious faith. And while the Catholic Church, battered by scandal, may be waning, it remains that you can take the man out of Catholicism, but not Catholicism out of the man. Just ask John Michael McDonagh, writer-director of "Calvary."
Set in Ireland (land of the English-born McDonagh's ancestors), "Calvary" is a tale of fear and helplessness laced with blackest humor. But while puncturing old notions of perfect priests (no Father Flanagan here), the lapsed-Catholic McDonagh honors what the profession of the priesthood and New Testament stories can be good for. The resulting mystery-play-goes-mystery-movie allegory may have a heavy hand, but it also has its finger on the pulse of the struggles facing the Church and the emotional needs of its drifting parishioners.
In a typically commanding performance, the great Brendan Gleeson stars as Father James Lavelle, a basically kindly sort who meets a ghastly challenge in the film's opening moments. Behind the obscuring screen of a confessional, one of Father James' parishioners "confesses" that he was raped, beginning at the age of 7, by a long-dead priest. To send a message, the parishioner promises to kill Father James in a week's time. The confessor explains, "I'm going to kill you 'cause you're innocent," as innocent as the would-be killer's deadened inner child.
So begin the stations (mercifully reduced to seven) of Father James' cross. As James slouches towards Calvary, he begins squinting at each parishioner he visits, wondering, "Could this be the man who intends to kill me?" And yet, Father James is there less to interrogate and more to serve as psychologist and helping hand, despite commonly meeting with resistance, ingratitude and hostility. In his way, Father James is a comfort to everyone, even those who hate him. Yep, he's willing to die for his parishioners' sins, and on the way towards a fateful Sunday, he even sustains some conspicuous wounds.
The episodic structure can be wearying, but the suspects comprise a fine collection of character actors given gleefully inappropriate things to say, from a still-kicking M. Emmet Walsh ("Blood Simple") as an American writer to Chris O'Dowd (coming off his Tony-nominated work in "Of Mice and Men") as a wife-beating butcher, Dylan Moran (who oughta be a household name on these shores as he is at home for "Black Books") as a misanthropic millionaire to Aidan Gillen ("Game of Thrones") as a nastily cynical doctor, not to mention that adulterous mechanic from the Ivory Coast (Isaach De BankolĂ© of "The Limits of Control").
Father James' own issues include a depressive daughter played by "Flight"'s Kelly Reilly (another mystery: From whence does depression spring, and how can it be banished?) and his own latent anger at the Church's letdowns and the situation in which he finds himself. As a feature-length grapple with the for-better-and-worse Church, "Calvary" speaks loudly and clearly to those of McDonagh's background, though the noble notion of trying to meet the challenge of Christ to live generously and humbly certainly can transcend religion.
The extremities of the language and the violence will immediately turn off many, and McDonagh's self-reflexively writerly tone (shared with brother Martin) -- lines like "He's a character, huh?" -- unnecessarily take us out of the narrative. Still, "Calvary"'s provocations are productive, adding up to an intriguing defense of the relevance of a good priest in a time when his profession is beleaguered.
Rated R for sexual references, language, brief strong violence and some drug use. One hour, 40 minutes.