This is an immensely clever, moving and powerful drama. It opens with a quote from St Augustine about Calvary:
“Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved.
Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.”
which serves to set the scene for the eight day journey through the moral maze that Father James must make if he is to keep an appointment with his executioner. The ambiguity of life and the moral consequences of the choices people make form both the back drop and the texture of this film. Brendan Gleeson (Fr James) is present in almost every frame of this 100 minute movie and it is his presence that carries the story. At times it is very funny in the style of In Bruges or The Guard but it also takes the viewer to dark places - very dark places.
Fr James is one of two parish priests in a small coastal village 21 miles from Sligo in the West of Ireland. The kind of tight-knit community where everybody knows everybody else and where there are no secrets as the only place to hide is in plain sight. The dialogue of the characters, parishioners and confessors, centres on sin and judgement. Fr James who came to his vocation later in life and who allows his experiences and reading of human nature to inform his pastoral ministry with a refreshing degree of realism and maturity, is widely regarded as a good man. He persistently tries to turn conversations on to discussions of virtues and the need to forgive. Everyone else in the village is either a perpetrator or willing victim colluding with their abusers and it is this distinction that sets him apart. He acknowledges the 'greyness' of life and morality whilst everyone else wants it painted in either black or white. Even his presbyteral colleague is portrayed as so many priests on TV and the big screen are - wet, ineffectual, on the make and lacking in integrity. And the bishop - well, let's not even go there.
What the film highlights is the core human need to be loved and how when that is betrayed, horribly betrayed, the consequences ripple outwards. The small community features a man looking for status through wealth and business success, a women looking for love through promiscuity, an old embittered man writing his memoirs as he prepares for death, a young widow who found death too readily, a doctor who tries too hard to be an atheist because he cannot cope with the things he sees in his work, a young man desperately short of self-confidence and in need of a life companion, a gay police Inspector, a West-African car mechanic who introduces the prospect of racial discrimination, a death-row cannibal seeking forgiveness and a butcher who can't decide if his wife is bipolar or lactose intolerant! In this small tight-knit community there is an amazing array of character archetypes.
Fr James doesn't go looking for trouble or to antagonise anyone but as the week unfolds and this cast of characters are presented to the viewer, each one is set up with sufficient motive to be the executioner. Alongside this he is working through his own personal demons and he treats himself in the same rational and benevolent way that he deals with his flock. My work is with those in training being formed as priests and a more rounded and positive role model I could not wish to encounter. Whichever seminary it was that trained Fr James - I'd like to send all my charges there too.
I found this a very funny, moving, convincing and also deeply distressing film. I have purposefully not divulged anything of the plot, how the narrative arc is established or how it concludes. I didn't want to spoil it for you. I caught it on a members' free preview screening from those nice people at Harbour Lights in Southampton and whilst I normally have to let a film ferment for a day or two before blogging I felt compelled to splurge this review and reflection out straightaway - very unusual. The soft lighting of the Irish landscape and the rolling and lush green hills provide a wonderful context in which this brutal and savage tale unfolds. Many of the faces are in huge close up with wonderful digital clarity and poetic lighting - I feel I am now intimately acquainted with Brendan Gleeson's facial pores and beard! I think this is a brave and creative piece of cinema with compelling acting and a glorious location. I'll give it 9/10! See it when it comes out next weekend.