Roger Ebert was fond of saying that it isn't what the movie's about, it's how it's about it. Calvary is a good example of that maxim. On paper, Calvary's plot sounds sensationalistic: as it opens, a disembodied voice confesses to a priest that he is so angry about the abuse he suffered when he was an altar boy that he is going to kill the priest in seven days. Father James objects - he's never abused anyone. The unseen voice says that he knows that the man he's threatening is innocent, and that's actually why he's a target. The killer want his crime to make a statement, and killing an abusive priest wouldn't make as much of an impression on the world as killing an innocent priest would.
In practice, however, Calvary is anything but sensationalistic. It doesn't forget the threat against Father James - we can see how it's weighing on him, and how he has to bite his tongue so he doesn't talk about it with his daughter, who is struggling with deep personal problems of her own - but the film isn't structured like a mystery, nor is it a polemic against the Catholic church. No, Calvary is an exploration of what William James called The Variety of Religious Experience. The priest decides that despite the threat he is going to go about his regular priestly duties, and as he does, we get to see the various roles that he plays in his community.
The range of challenges Father James faces is great, starting with little tasks like taking supplies to an old man and going up to being asked to answer life's unanswerable questions. During one vignette the Father tries to give advice to a young man who is thinking of joining the army; at the end of their conversation Father James doubts that he's been of any help to the man at all. At another point, a lapsed Catholic comes by to spitefully taunt him with how much extra-marital sex she's having; despite her petulance Father James still tries to come to her aid when he finds out that she might have been hit by one of her lovers. One of the more complicated interactions involves a rich man who disdains religion but who also needs help managing his existential anguish. As the rich man vacillates between contempt for the church and a legitimate need for guidance, Father James vacillates between wanting to tell him to fuck off and wanting to help him.
Calvary provides an interesting portrait of how monolithic entities like the Catholic church actually function on the human level. Father James is a great three dimensional character because he doesn't shy away from complex dialogues or hide behind the formality of ritual. There are times when he completely turns the other cheek, there are times when he is obviously keeping his real opinion to himself and acting only as a representative of the Church, and there are times when his temper gets the best of him and he curses like a sailor. The longer the film goes on, the more you realize how much the Church will lose if he dies, and how foolish it is to blame all priests equally for the Church's sex abuse scandals.
The one problem I had with how Calvary told it's story is that it's unrelentingly melancholy tone can be quite oppressive. Father James has very little he can really do to help most of his parish, most of whom seem to be suffering from serious problems, and who can't be salvaged with a mere band aid. The one bright light we have is Father James, who is trying to fight the good fight, but when his sense of foreboding overwhelms him the whole film the film seems to completely lose hope. As the film gets closer and closer to the point where Father James will have to face his would-be killer, the more the small, tender moments recede into the background and the more the film's funereal air comes to the foreground. But even if it's not the most pleasant tone, a funereal air is fitting for a movie about the mortality of a man who perform funerals for a living. This is a film where the what and the how are perfectly in sync, because it makes sense to tell a story about the heaviness of life and the inevitability of death in a mournful way. If Roger Ebert had lived to see Calvary, I think he'd approve.