Thursday, 3 July 2014

Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed

This is a charming film that seems to do a pretty good job of bringing to life Franco's Spain.  It certainly made me glad I didn't live there, and not only because I can't speak Spanish. Some of the characters are a bit too good to be true - most particularly the bar owner - but the central figure, a school teacher who wants to meet John Lennon, is beautifully written and played. It's amazing to see at the end that the film is based on fact, as it comes across as a highly satisfactory fairy tale.  All in all, it is what Sandy Stone would call 'a really nice night's entertainment', although, of course he would probably never dream of going to a Spanish film


There is a moment in Calvary where one character yells at another, 'You have no integrity' and, despite its great cast and beautiful scenery, I think the same could be said about the film. Having chosen one of the most disturbing and painful themes possible, the film-makers dodge it, taking refuge in comedy  - or an attempt at comedy - for the greater part of the film, gilding the lily further with a dad and self-harming daughter reconciliation story that seems to be from a different, more naturalistic style of movie altogether, and adding, for good measure, an enigmatic French widow, whose accent is, I think, supposed to make the not enormously insightful things she says sound like the pronouncements of a latter day saint. Only in the closing moments does anyone summon up the courage to confront the horror they've been tiptoeing around for the last hour or so. Two of the characters, almost all of whom have been portrayed up until then as grotesques, caricatures, (role-players, as the creepy doctor puts it), are abruptly transformed - or at least there is an attempt to transform them - into more rounded characters with emotional lives of genuine depth.

The effect of this ultimate shift is jolting. Jolting, of course, can be good. However, it is not good if it ends up destroying coherence and, in Calvary, this is exactly what it does. As a result, Calvary ends up, like Saving Private Ryan, being two films sold as one - both films contain a beach sequence, which is one separate entity, and another longer, apparently discrete segment, which is the other. Calvary's beach sequence ends the film whereas Saving Private Ryan's comes at the beginning, (which means in the latter case that you at least have the opportunity to slip out and avoid the schmaltzy main feature, a possibility Calvary does not provide).

Even though the actors were all good and Sligo looked beautiful, I wouldn't advise anyone to go to see Calvary. The shift at the very end from a Ballykissangel-on-acid narrative, (including a sequence in which Dylan Moran pees on Holbein's The Ambassadors), to something quite else, a deeply serious and horrible scenario, seemed above all tasteless to me - especially as even in the final scene the writer cannot resist a faint return to flippancy in an exchange regarding a dog, plus a discussion about Moby Dick. I know a defence could be made that the whole effect is deliberate - an attempt to portray the way that people spend their time behaving as if there is nothing lurking beneath the merry surface of life, until something cracks and it all leaks out. The trouble is that for most of its length Calvary is not portraying anything that is lifelike; it is being some kind of caricature, presenting a world that is in no way real. Therefore, it cannot ask to be judged on the basis of being like reality. On the other hand, it can be judged on its merits as a work of art and, as such, it fails, in my view - its unconvincing lurch from light to dark makes it a flawed - and for the bulk of the film cowardly - piece of work.