Love in a dark time, Malgorzata Szumowska’s In The Name Of evokes the desolation of a gay man in conflict with God with summertime brilliance.
Heavenly Creatures by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Twenty years after Antonia Bird’s Priest, it’s Poland’s turn for a gay priest drama of its own. But unlike Bird’s film, Malgorzata Szumowska’s In The Name Of isn’t so much a taboo-busting look at the desecration of a sacred vow so much as the diary of a gay country priest. Adam, the aptly named protagonist of W Imie – seemingly the first gay man in the Garden of Poland – symbolises the struggle of a very Catholic coming out. We meet him as a man, running through the forest or dancing at a local disco, before discovering the man of the cloth, sermonising about the selfish I that prevents us from becoming a nothing devoted solely to God. And then, naked before God in the bathtub pleasuring himself, the obscure object of his desire not yet clear. A desperate and conflicted man in the wilderness, praying for salvation from his demons.
Transferred from Warsaw, priest Adam (Andrzej Chyra) is sent to a boys’ reform school in north-eastern Poland in the middle of nowhere. He runs, dances and occasionally drinks, but steers clear of Ewa’s sexual advances, a bored housewife looking for distraction. Instead he plays football with the boys and accompanies them to the building site they labour on. And after Lukasz (Mateusz Kosciukiewicz) is beaten up, Adam strikes up a friendship with the boy, and teaches him to swim. But battling his own sexual demons, and with accusations levied against him, fuelled by the teenagers’ own sexual anxiety and the vulnerability of their unorthodox confessions, Adam takes to the bottle. For no matter how hard he tries to reduce himself to nothing and remain faithful to God, his wandering eyes and intimacy with the boys begin to arouse suspicions in this small-town community.
In many ways, In The Name Of couldn’t be more different from Malgorzata Szumowska’s previous film and discourse on the state of modern woman Elles. Despite a similar focus on sexuality and an identity falling apart, W Imie returns to the director’s native Poland and is centred around a man (and only one at that), Szumowska proving she’s not just a feminist filmmaker. And for a film set in the bleak world of a reformatory school for troubled teenage boys in the middle of the Polish countryside, In The Name Of has a distinctly golden tint – an otherworldly paradise that Adam is rapidly falling from. In fact, the priest’s connection to God as much as his own psyche is conjectured largely through the polarity of nature, the bright flame of his faith sustained by an almost ever-present sunlight – a stark contrast to the doubt that persists through his penitential runs and desperate looks heavenwards through misty tree tops.
And while Adam is caught in a purgatory of his own making, it’s the reactions of those around him that reveal most about changing attitudes towards homosexuality; his expatriate sister refusing to listen or be involved in her brother’s sexual soul-searching, or Lukasz torching the local store out of sheer blunt, closeted frustration. The fact that Adam might be gay is enough for Michal to write a letter to the bishop, and yet he embraces Adam with great tenderness as he says goodbye. And in the reformatory, the boys with homosexual tendencies are in hiding, disguised beneath either a bullish exterior or escaping judgement through suicide. By the end however, there is a certain kind of (dramatic) acceptance as Adam and Lukasz’s relationship of tender nursing and running through cornfields culminates in a night of passion. But sadly, the coming out ends here, and the solution to their impossible relationship isn’t that Adam leaves the seminary, but rather that Lukasz joins it – a plot twist that chimes with recent stories of gay clergy in the Polish press. And while the Catholic Church isn’t exactly lambasted (avowedly investigating every indiscretion of its priesthood), it’s a bureaucracy immured behind closed doors, with no priest available to hear Adam’s wretched confession and a beacon for confused young souls yearning for the company of men.
Winner of the Teddy Award at this year’s Berlinale, In The Name Of has a peculiar, otherworldly brightness to its dark story of an anguished priest. It’s a brilliantly virile performance from Andrzej Chyra, though the script doesn’t accord him quite the same jaw-dropping spectacle as Juliette Binoche had in Elles. And while it’s unlikely that W Imie will be as shockingly provocative as her previous film, Malgorzata Szumowska has nevertheless created a crushingly spiritual look at an identity fracturing in the name of God.
In The Name Of is released on 27th September 2013 in the UK