Scandalous exposés about gay priests hiding beneath the starchy, ossified Catholic robes make hardly news anymore, ever since the public has started pulling out hypocrisies from the Vatican’s strictly-guarded closet in recent times. Cinema, on the other hand, has been slow in the uptake, where the ongoing contradiction between faith and sexuality is seldom explored, with Antonia Bird’s Priest and Alex Gibney’s explosive documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God being two of the most obvious paradigms. Not to mention these two works bookended the best part of the last decade. Poland, being one of the most staunchly Catholic countries in Europe, if not the entire world, takes a stab in providing perspective on the controversial subject with In The Name Of. The film already bagged an award in the Berlinale earlier this year, and is set to annoy even more stone-cold gargoyles and rigid puritans that run the Vatican and its religious empire.
Director Malgoska Szumowska’s approach is neither provoking scandal nor providing scathing religious commentary but rather attempting to psychologically examine the sexual repression of a man who happen to be a priest. In The Name Of is mostly remarkable due to its bravery in separating the (wrongly) preconceived notions between homosexuality and paedophilia in the Catholic church. The protagonist Adam (played to brimming intensity by Andrizej Chyra) is a booze-drinking, marathon-running, football-kicking small-town priest whose faith and fidelity to his religion is put to test when he’s tasked to run a delinquent centre, looking after rowdy young men, who no sooner than later invoked angsty sexual yearnings from the middle-aged man. Particularly the Jesus Christ look-a-like Lukasz, the reticent, bearded young lad, who take Father Adam as a counsellor and guide. The metaphor is obviously laid out – Szumowska sets up a pietá-like scene where Father Adam wipes the bloodied Lukasz as he rests on his lap during the aftermath of a boys’ brawl. Szumowska’s restraint is credible, never letting her piece capsize into exploitation even when sexual tensions intensify. The film is also admirable in its non-judgemental study of a man’s spiritual deterioration and subsequent sexual awakening – one standout scene sees Adam, drunken and desperately lonely, exclaims to her sister over Skype, that he isn’t a paedophile but rather a ‘faggot’. In society’s eyes, however, a priest hankering over young men is labelled the other way around, or worse both.
It is a shame, then, that the director’s dignified essay is somewhat weighed down by its often unnecessary aestheticism. The cinematography, while nonetheless beautiful, often dips into that afterglow romantic movie palette that feels like a betrayal of the social-realist grit of this dusty provincial Poland. That cornfield sequence where Adam and Lukasz play hide-and-seek, howling like primeval apes, is laughable rather than poignant. And whenever the film segues into melancholia, we’re drip-fed by this generically mawkish string music that could’ve been lifted out from a royalty-free online songbook best used for Grand Emotional Scenes. Ultimately, there’s the narrative – strong when it focusses on Adam and his inner existential conflict, but meandering when it introduces the romantic subplot, with Lukasz’s character being the main victim. His chemistry with Adam never really gels, and slightly frustrating when the narrative never really presents him as a whole character but rather as an object to which Szumowska directs Adam’s desire.DIRECTOR: Malgoska Szumowska | CAST: Andrizej Chyra, Mateusz Kosciukiewicz, Lukasz Simlat | SCREENPLAY: Malgoska Szumowska, Michal Englert | DISTRIBUTOR: Peccadillo Pictures | RUNNING-TIME: 102 mins | GENRE: Drama | COUNTRY: Poland