We meet Father James (Brendan Gleeson) as he sits listening to one man’s confession, but it turns out that this confession is more of a threat. The unseen figure threatens to kill the Father by the end of the week, not for anything he has done, but because the world is an unfair, ugly place. The vengeful man had a traumatizing experience as a boy that rightly so alienated him from the church. The Father listens and does the most humanly thing possible. He doesn’t act as if he has the solution to all the problems, he can’t attempt to fix what has already happened, so he simply acknowledges it and extends his sympathy.
The same goes for the threat of death. He’s not sent into some hysterical fit of terror or rage. He continues through his life, making his rounds through the community to the people in his parish. He goes to their shops, their places of residence, and the bars. You can tell he truly cares for the people around him, but there is an underlying jadedness to everything he does. You can see it on his face wherever he goes. But it doesn’t come from a lack of conviction or faith in his God like father Tomas in Bergman’s Winter Light. James is a priest for the modern age, and it all makes sense if you look around his town.
True, this film starts off with a death threat to a priest, but it’s hardly a mystery because James knows who the Judas is. What’s really paramount are all the people he interacts with. They are the ones who are truly sucking the lifeblood out of him, not the threat of death. The young people are fully engulfed in a secular world and have little notion of how religion plays a role in life. They’re not against it so much as they’ve lived a life without it.
The adults are perhaps worse because they look at the Father and his calling with a cynicism. They say his way is finished. They scoff, belittle, and make light of him for no good reason. Simply because they have no need for Him or his faith. This is the modern world after all. Butchers, bartenders, mechanics don’t need someone to repress them and act as a moral compass. That’s so archaic and constricting.
Meanwhile, they stand by as his church is razed to the ground and they do nothing. The throat of his beloved dog Bruno is slit and Father James is left to weep alone. There are a few characters on the outskirts, who seem to care for him, and one happens to be his daughter Fiona. She too has grown up in the secular world, but they love each other dearly. Her serious contemplation of suicide is yet another anxiety plaguing her father’s life.
Interestingly enough, Father James notes how there’s much more talk about sin rather than virtues. He realizes that forgiveness is highly underrated and that is something that he learns a great deal about over the course of his week. Whether it’s in easier circumstances when responding to his daughter or invariably more difficult forgiving all those hard-hearted individuals around. Or perhaps the most difficult of all, forgiving the man who is going to kill him.
The Father makes his way to the beach ready to meet his assailant as a stoic solitary figure, not simply ready to meet his executioner, but ready to meet his maker. This is a dark and heavy film, but certainly not without merit. It’s weighed down by cynicism, but at its core is a man of immense strength and personal conviction. He’s not a perfect example of a man of faith, but does anybody really want a perfect example? It’s an impossible expectation, but Father James is a living example. Living, breathing, and dying. A man who was just as prepared to forgive those who despised him as much as he loved those ones who actually cared. Kudos to Brendan Gleeson for a truly stirring portrayal.