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Calvary and Land Ho!: Tradition vs. contemporary mores

Before Father James (Brendan Gleeson) was a priest, he was a grieving widower and alcoholic father to Fiona (Kelly Reilly).

Calvary

Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh

Starring Brendan Gleeson, Chris O'Dowd, Kelly Reilly

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Classification: 14A; 100 minutes

3 stars

Land Ho!

Written and directed by Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens

Starring Earl Lynn Nelson, Paul Eenhoorn

Classification: 14A; 95 minutes

2.5 stars

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'Why should not old men be mad?" asked the poet W.B.Yeats. A good question. Two movies this week are comedy-dramas about aging, unreconstructed traditional men, who can't and won't reconcile to contemporary mores or political orthodoxy. In the case of Calvary, a comedy-drama set in the area known as Yeats country, County Sligo, on the northwest coast of Ireland, the new orthodoxy is secular and skeptical and the hero a Catholic priest.

Calvary was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, a one-time altar boy and the older brother of playwright and film director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths). This is the elder McDonagh's second feature film, following 2011's The Guard, which features Brendan Gleeson as a cantankerous policeman joining forces with Don Cheadle's FBI agent, and is the most successful indie film in Irish history. Both films are part of what McDonagh has dubbed his "glorified suicide trilogy"; the upcoming final entry, The Lame Shall Enter First, features Gleeson again as a paraplegic former cop.

To say Gleeson "stars" in Calvary seems inadequate. He dominates it, as a shaggy, bearded man of faith and feeling, who rages, drinks, uses foul language and offers surprising pastoral advice. (Try pornography, he suggests to a frustrated young man who is thinking of joining the army.) The actor's bristling humour, soulful gaze and dignity gives a human form to McDonagh's anxious jumble of ideas and genre elements: the pitch black comedy, the religious inquiry and the village detective story.

We start in the confession box, where Father James (Gleeson) hears a man say: "I was seven years old when I first tasted semen …"

"Certainly a startling opening line," responds the priest.

The unseen penitent, who recounts a childhood of sexual abuse by a priest, aims to do more than startle. He has decided to kill Father James in seven days, choosing to sacrifice an innocent priest for sins against the innocents. The priest tells his bishop he recognizes the killer, but won't identify which of his soul-sick parishioners may be his assassin.

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The Agatha Christie mystery formula of interviewing suspects slides into another kind of lineup – with medieval pageant of the varieties of sin. As Father James makes his rounds, the parishioners represent the spectrum of iniquity: despair, wrath, lust, pride, cruelty, blasphemy and greed. His investigations include a cynical romantic triangle, including an unfaithful wife (Orla O'Rourke), her indifferent husband (Chris O'Dowd) and her African immigrant lover (Isaach De Bankolé).

There's a caustically atheistic doctor (Aiden Gillen), a morally dubious police chief (Gary Lydon), a manic male prostitute (Owen Sharpe), an aging American writer (M. Emmet Walsh) contemplating suicide and a rich man (Dylan Moran) trying to buy forgiveness for his sins: "It's a black day altogether when the Catholic Church is not interested in money."

Father James has his personal cross to bear. Before he was a priest, he was a husband, a grieving widower and an alcoholic father. Shortly after he gets marked for death, he goes to the train station to meet his adult daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), back from London, and a suicide attempt, with bandages on her wrists that suggest a stigmata.

In the local jail, there's a young prisoner (played by Gleeson's son, Domhnall Gleeson) who has raped, killed and cannibalized a little girl, but, pious to the end, maintains God must have made him for a reason.

The crime is hideous, but obviously metaphor: a grisly parody of the sacrament of communion (eating the flesh) to remind us of the clergy's crimes against the innocent. In the same allegorical line, there's even a kind of divine visitation: Father James meets a beautiful French woman (Quebec's Marie Josée-Croze) whose young husband has been killed by drunk-driving teens, and whose acceptance is so serene it could only be divine.

Calvary is an unsettling concoction, abstract and brutal, morally serious and too ghastly in its flippancy to be simply comedy. When you stop gasping at the shocks and jokes, there's a profundity here, in the struggle to find the balance between outrage and forgiveness.

*********

About 1,300 kilometres to the northwest of Sligo is another island nation of Iceland, the setting for most of the American drama Land Ho! The story is about two men, former brothers-in-law, now divorced from two sisters. They travel to Iceland to forget their loneliness and raise a little hell in a gentle road-trip comedy.

As in Calvary, the strange, rugged landscapes evoke a natural world older than human memory, and serve as kind of rebuke to human aspirations or disappointments: "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the Earth?" God asked Job. Another good question.

Colin (Paul Eenhoorn) is a quiet, retired Australian-American musician-turned-banker, now living in Seattle. Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) is a surgeon from Kentucky, a gregarious loudmouth and horn dog, who can't see a lighthouse or a geyser without talking about penises.

Mitch is the one who books the trip to Iceland, and Colin, after a mild protest, trails along. Mitch's plan is simple: Eat good food, see the tourist sites, smoke some weed and check out the ladies. As the title suggests, the men see themselves as a couple of pirate adventurers, even if they are dressed in expandable waist bands and sensible shoes.

Land Ho! is both loose (shot over 18 days, with an improv quality to the acting) and overcalculated in its series of encounters, small revelations and life-affirming beats. The movie is pleasant and mostly forgettable, except for the character of Mitch.

With his bullfrog voice, good ol' boy gut and overbearing friendliness. Mitch feels real enough you can imagine the smell of his sweat and after-shave. He's played by real-life plastic surgeon Earl Lynn Nelson, whose acting career has existed entirely within the films of his second cousin, Martha Stephens (Passenger Pigeons, Pilgrim Song). He feels as indomitable as one of Iceland's ancient, growling volcanoes.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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