In the follow-up to his universally acclaimed feature debut,The Guard, writer/director John Michael McDonagh shifts his focus from the police force to another institution deeply rooted in Irish society and culture: the Catholic Church.

Brendan Gleeson – who also starred in The Guard – plays Father James Lavelle, a small town priest who, as both he and we are told in Calvary’s opening confessional scene, has been targeted for murder. Not because he is a bad man, mind you, but because he is a good one. Lavelle is to be sacrificed for the institutional sins of the church.

The idea first came to McDonagh during the filming of The Guard. “I was saying, ‘I bet they’re gonna be making plenty of po-faced, boring movies about scandals in the church,’ and that we should get in ahead of the game and do the exact opposite and make a film about a good priest, just to wrong-foot people. I thought, ‘Well, they don’t really make movies about genuinely good people.’ Usually the protagonists of films are anti-heroes or are conflicted in some way, or it’s the villain – usually it’s the villain, in these big budget movies, that drives the story forward. So, ‘OK, let’s make it an unironic movie about a sincerely good man who just wants to do good things but is, basically, surrounded by this cast of eccentric, strange, confrontational characters who try to crush him.’”

McDonagh worked up a first draft of the screenplay, which he then sent to Gleeson, who had been earmarked for the lead role from the get-go. “I’ve had such a good relationship with Brendan. We became friends and I trusted his instincts. When I wrote the first draft and sent it to him I was happy to get his notes, and his main note was to make it all a bit more emotional. So I developed more the relationship with the daughter [Kelly Reilly], that kind of thing.”

The heart of the matter, though, remains Gleeson’s Father Lavelle, a man of conviction and faith. “He is very smart and he is a good man but that doesn’t stop him from being acerbic and sarcastic at times when he has to keep dealing with these fools that surround him. But let’s say the scene with Dylan Moran’s financier: no matter how angry he gets by the way he’s treated, he still wants to help him, ultimately, and is willing to do that.

“Even towards the end when he meets him and he doesn’t know what turn his life is gonna take when he goes down to the beach, up to the last moment he’s still trying to help people. And he’s not a saint – he’s almost broken and he has his own addictions to deal with, but he is ultimately good and his faith is a true one.”

Moran isn’t the only comedian in the film, which although bleakly funny, deals with heady themes and dramatic situations. Chris O’Dowd, best known from The IT Crowd, also features in a key role.

Says McDonagh, “I’ve always enjoyed working with comedy actors. I find that they’re underrated as dramatic actors and they feel that they are, so they’re looking to do meaty, dramatic roles. They’re always really focused and professional and they’re there for you – and they appreciate that you’ve got faith in them. I’ve never had one who has let me down.

“And just on a pragmatic level, they’re enjoyable to be around on the set. When you’re done with your week’s shooting and you’re out on a Friday or Saturday night, it’s good fun to be out with them.”

Calvary hits the silver screens on Thursday July 3.

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