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CALVARY and Yeats

May 11, 2014

This blog is mostly about writing and reading and the time and space around them, so it’s unusual for me to want to blog about a film.

Yesterday, the weather was grim. Real ‘filum’ weather. I had managed to prise two box-loads of books from my shelves. I was taking them to Charlie Byrne’s warehouse in Oranmore. There’s a cinema nearby. Kill two birds with one stone, I thought.

And that’s how I found myself at a private viewing of  CALVARY.   I saw a performance worthy of all those glittery prizes.  I hope Brendan Gleeson gets them.

No one else in Cinema 6.  Just me, Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, a dog named Bruno…and the rest of John Michael McDonagh’s characters.


Perhaps the fact that there was no one chomping on popcorn, slurping drinks, texting, or chewing gum with their mouths open, allowed me to concentrate more – or, rather, let the film just happen before me.

At the end of it all, I could only think of medieval morality plays. Not that Gleeson is an Everyman, or for that matter an Everypriest. Yet, somehow, he manages to convey a sense of taking on that role. As Fr James takes on the sins of his community (in both senses of that phrase), he is the prism through which his modern Irish village is viewed.

And, it ain’t nice.

Gleeson as Fr. James in Calvary

Gleeson as Fr. James in Calvary

I’m not a film critic.  What I can say is that I think Calvary is a deeply moral film. Or, perhaps, a film about morals. I felt very alone in that dark space yesterday. Not quite as uncomfortable as my seven-year old self in the confessional, no.  McDonagh uses his characters well in this confrontational film. Some of them are not very deeply drawn – but I think that is the very point. They are symbols – and they are everywhere in this country. They represent us up there on the big screen: our  petty venalities; a capacity for deep-welled malice.

Sometimes, we ain’t nice.

On the other hand, Calvary shows the hidden hurt of pain and betrayal, carried since childhood. It takes a bereft stranger to remark that the people have been really good to her.  There is room for love in this film.  The exchanges between Kelly Reilly’s character and Fr James also make a plea for the ‘underrated’  virtue of forgiveness.

There’s also room for humour.  I was reminded me of the time I went to my first over-18s film. I was 14:  the film was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I cried. My two boy friends on either side of me laughed through most of it. Yesterday, if the cinema had been full, there might have been more laughter than tears.

I won’t run through the plot. I hate spoiling someone else’s experience. But I will say that as an Irishwoman familiar with many of the actors and their previous roles, I loved how they were cast in this film. Old associations were blown out of the water; challenging preconceptions.

Finally, there is another star in the film – Ben Bulben. McDonagh makes the most of Sligo’s magnificent scenery, but Ben Bulben has a unique presence. Because of its shape, the mountain can be a soothing loaf of velvet green, or it can lour over the landscape: creating shadows; a portent of doom.

When I woke up this morning, the weather hadn’t changed. Calvary and Ben Bulben, still whirling around in my head,  sent me to Yeats’s Under Ben Bulben (1939). One of his last poems, its second verse suits Gleeson’s Fr James:

‘Many times man lives and dies
Between his two eternities,
That of race and that of soul,
And ancient Ireland knew it all.
Whether man die in his bed
Or the rifle knocks him dead,
A brief parting from those dear
Is the worst man has to fear.
Though grave-diggers’ toil is long,
Sharp their spades, their muscles strong.
They but thrust their buried men
Back in the human mind again.’

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