Varese Sarabande Records
“You have to detach yourself.” That’s the advice Brendan Gleeson’s scruffy pillar of a priest gives to a fellow clergyman in Calvary, the second film from John Michael McDonagh, who’s quickly and quietly expanding beyond his notoriety as “Martin McDonagh’s brother.” Calvary dumps a truckload of guilt on the doorstep of Father James and then sits back and watches him squirm at the sight. There’s little sense in a man, once abused by the clergy as a child, executing one of the church’s blameless — and Father James is told as much by his faceless accuser in Calvary‘s opening minutes. Good luck with that whole detachment thing.
Those outside of Ireland’s Classical charts won’t recognize Patrick Cassidy’s name, but his under-the-radar status (and slim filmography) is in step with an anonymous composition style. Across the pond, Cassidy’s cantata Children of Lir sat atop the charts for a full year, but American audiences who’ve endured Ridley Scott’s 2001 misfire Hannibal know him best for his Dante Alighieri aria “Vide cor meum.” The bounding repetition of its vocals are the sole sign of a pop structure in his faux operetta as it’s but another exemplar of Cassidy steeping himself in old stylizations.
With an obligatory deference to ancient place and Catholic praxis, Calvary sounds like the composer tiptoeing into modern music. The lush, full-throated vocal cues in his classical work are no less diminished here, but their appearances — each one of them on the heels of Calvary‘s opening death threat — become ironic in their beauty and grandeur. “Calvary Theme” rustles awake, its woodwinds and velvety strings soothing into a passable Edvard Grieg imitation. “Memories Fade” sees Aya Peard echo this leitmotif, which gains a harp in the calmer “The Beach” and stews in “Don’t Change the Subject’s” prickly fragility. “Third Act Revelation” again draws from Peard’s ethereal vocals like a returning call home, more rustic than sterile and chaste. Echoing choruses through imagined cathedrals might make for passable asceticism, but Cassidy humbles his compositions with deconstruction and elongation. Father James’ church isn’t Notre Dame, and it isn’t trying to be.
McDonagh isn’t interested in tarnishing the church’s name so much as taking note of its existing smudges and with measured objectivity. Cassidy follows suit. The tragically Alicia Keys-less “Your Church is on Fire” features a prominent synth licking the heels of rolling low strings, with violent slaps clashing against the overarching austerity. “Ben Bulben” distills beauty from dread with Peard’s ghostly voice emerging from a left-hand piano’s gloomy autonomy, but it’s the stirring two-parter “The Beattitudes” that rustles awake from some ancient slumber with Afro Celt Sound System’s Iarla Ó Lionáird. Throughout Calvary, Cassidy pushes satisfied, wavering melodies — see “Why Am I Here” for the mournful version of this, “Forgiveness” for the tender — but none are more indifferent than the “Beattitude’s” bookends, which float above table mountains, ugly confrontation, and the voices sandwiched in between.
Cassidy’s scant leitmotifs make for a muddled experience on even a third or fourth listen, but Calvary‘s hazy uniformity finds definition in its instrumental changes. His sound design elements aren’t criticisms of ancient tongues or classical arrangements, just as Calvary is interested in the spiritual reckoning of one man rather than his parish. But beginning and ending with the same male-driven vocals centers that focus while pushing out a women-centered corpus. As a film, Calvary‘s insistence on reducing its women to pity cases and crutches for forgiveness is disappointing, and Father James’ spiritual journey is a road paved with the detritus of the abused and self-abusing women in his life. Shame Cassidy’s solemnity adds to the body count.