Malgorzata Szumowska’s tale of a gay priest in rural Poland is thoughtful and insightful, but it stays firmly on the fence, says Simon Mernagh.
What’s that? Gay priests? I’m scandalised! While the notion (fact) of closeted priests raises zero Western eyebrows these days, save for a few dinosaur right-wing newspaper columnists, it’s a rare movie that captures repressed sexual angst quite as tenderly, or with as much honesty, as In the Name Of… manages to.
A lonely, conflicted priest called Adam (Andrzej Chyra) runs a youth detention centre for boys in a modern-day Polish backwater. He falls for a feral teenager, thus throwing both his oath of chastity and concept of sexual purity into jeopardy. As writer-director Malgorzata Szumowska’s apprehensive follow-up to 2011’s underwhelming Elles, this movie is a revelation.
Aside from the obvious psychological and emotional torture of living in a clerical closet, In the Name Of… really nails the way casual homophobia can manifest in conservative society. Throwaway remarks loaded with hatred are tossed here and there, by kids and adults alike, without a first thought, let alone a second. But gays are branded “sinners”, so no harm done.
Yo-yoing between scenes of intense compassion and vitriolic bullying, Szumowska downplays the conflicts in a scenario ripe for cloying melodrama, allowing the story and characters to breathe and reveal themselves at their own pace. We grow to identify with Adam as events unfold; the film tentatively earns our sympathies without demanding them.
In the Name Of… certainly hits far more often than it misses, but absolution for the sins it does commit would require several trips to the confessional booth.
Cinematographer and recurring Szumowska screenwriting cohort Michal Englert bathes proceedings in stunning golden light, but it proves a strange counterpoint to the grim subject matter. The quasi-theological flourishes of ethereal sunbeams feel like absurd reassurances from the guy upstairs, but audiences, on the other hand, will want nothing more than for Adam to forsake the Church’s darkness in favour of the light.
Complex subjects such as the longing for intimate companionship within the Catholic Church demand thorough explanation, yet Szumowska refuses to take any kind of stance in the final act, instead letting the romance play out (albeit in a chilling, harrowing way). What begins as an unabridged tragedy about forbidden gay love takes an ambiguous turn with an infuriating ‘gotcha!’ ending that neither wraps up a single issue nor belongs on planet Earth. It’s utterly baffling.
Still, this subtle, restrained film from the Polish division of Lars von Trier’s Zentropa Entertainment adds a much-needed dollop of humanity to the phenomena of religious repression and church-sanctioned prejudice.
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