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'Calvary' Brings Murder And Other Sins To The Big Screen


In a small town in County Sligo, Ireland, a priest sits down to take confession.


BRENDAN GLEESON: (As Father James) I'm here to listen to whatever you have to say.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I'm going to kill you, Father.

GLEESON: (As Father James) Certainly a startling opening line.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I was raped by a priest when I was 7 years old.

GLEESON: (As Father James)You ought to make a formal complaint.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What good would it do? The man's dead.

RATH: That is from the opening scene of John Michael McDonagh's new film "Calvary." The priest, played by Brendan Gleeson, is under threat. We don't know who it is, though. We meet a parade of local characters, any one of whom could be the potential killer. And in a way, that's the point. The movie feels more about these characters than about solving the mystery. John Michael McDonagh joins me to discuss "Calvary." Welcome.


RATH: So I'm wondering why you chose to do the whodunit structure to this film.

MCDONAGH: I was influenced by a Hitchcock movie, I confess. It's a Montgomery Clift film. He is told something in the confessional that he can't reveal. I knew the film was going to be about a Catholic priest. And I thought, you know, a lot of the audience aren't going to be familiar with Catholicism. But they may know the idea that a priest, like a lawyer, is not supposed to reveal something that he's been told in the confessional. So I had the idea that he - Father James, played by Brendan Gleeson, would be threatened by this unseen man. The unseen man has been abused as a child. The person who abused him is dead - a priest. He knows Father James is innocent, but he thinks it will be more shocking to kill an innocent man, an innocent priest, than a bad one. So it sets up what I guess is a murder mystery in reverse.

RATH: One thing that's sort of wild watching it, thought, is that it almost - it doesn't feel like haste in the way of that kind of ticking bomb sort of, you know, Hitchcock device. You sort of - one becomes really absorbed in these characters.

MCDONAGH: Yeah. I think, you know, the overall framework is there. And it comes in at specific moment throughout the narrative. But I was more interested in Father James meeting all of these kind of oddball eccentrics and having these kind of philosophical and spiritual conversations. It's him, you know, trying to do his work, you know, ministering to the sick, trying to mediate between an unhappy couple, performing the last rites. And so we're - in the course of his daily work, we're meeting all of these characters. But, of course, as it goes along, every now and again we're reminded of the fact that one of them is threatening to kill him.

RATH: And well, let's talk through the film a little bit, without, obviously giving away too much. Once this priest is told that he basically has a week to get his affairs in order, what does he do?

MCDONAGH: Well, he - he first goes to see his bishop to ask for advice. And the bishop, more or less, like Pontius Pilate, washes his hands of it and says, well, you know, if you're worried about it, you can go to the police because the man has threatened to kill you, which means he's not penitent, which means you can break the seal of the confessional. But Father James, I guess he feels that the church should be made to pay, in a way, for everything that has happened over the last 20 years, all the scandals. So he's kind of taking on board the idea of sacrifice. And he's also trying to save the soul of the person who's threatened him. So he doesn't go to the police. And he tries to deal with it in his own way. And at the same time, you know, he has things going on his own life. His daughter comes to visit him, and his daughter is not in a good place. So he's got - you know, he's got the personal thing going on as well as the social thing that's happening in the town.

RATH: You called this film - in an interview you said it was the second part of a suicide trilogy. And because it was a print interview, I couldn't quite tell if you were making a joke.

MCDONAGH: Yeah, a glorified suicide trilogy, which doesn't mean that the person dies at the end. It means that they go into a final climactic situation where the odds are against them and they're probably going to die. And if they know that, isn't it a suicidal act? So that's where that kind of idea came from. I think I was flippant to begin with, but then, the more I thought about it I thought it was actually quite a good idea. And so yeah, I'm going to do a third one that has a similar sort of structure to it that we're hoping to make next year with Brendan Gleeson. Also, you know, on a purely pragmatic business-level, once you've made three films and you call them a trilogy, you can sell a box set.

RATH: John Michael McDonagh wrote and directed the film "Calvary," which opened Friday in theaters nationwide. Thank you so much.

MCDONAGH: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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