John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary was one of 2014’s best films, with a central performance that is authentic in the rarest of ways. Brendan Gleeson is a welcome throwback to a specialized breed of cinematic actors: big, erudite men (Robert Shaw was such an actor). Gleeson began his acting career at a young age, appearing in the plays of Samuel Beckett and William Shakespeare. He was an English teacher for over a decade before embarking on a film career. Naturally, he has specialized in playing Irish patriarchs, mentors and historical figures, which makes his casting as Father James, a potential martyr, shrewd.
Traditionally, the role of a Catholic priest has been thought of as an actor’s plum. It is easy to see why, especially in the contemporary world. The Roman Catholic priest, with his vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, has willfully chosen a subculture that is shockingly in direct opposition to the precepts of modernism’s worldview. The priest believes, whether he inevitably lives up to it or not, that he has an existential calling. He does not take the honor unto himself. Rather, he regards that his is a vocation called by something inward. His rejection of materialism is, hypothetically, inclusive. Capital, desire, and ego, theoretically are tenets of a status quo path that he has chosen to reject. The priesthood is the quintessential revolt against all that which is temporal.