In her multiple award-winning career so far, Polish filmmaker Malgoska Szumowska has revealed a particular fascination with exploring the complexities of female sexuality onscreen, as evidenced in the controversial Elles starring Juliette Binoche (with whom she’s expected to reteam for 2015’s Sisters).
Yet as under-represented as women are on both sides of the lens (especially with regard to realistic portrayals helmed by female craftsmen), Szumowska changed her focus for her fifth feature In the Name Of by exposing the secrets, sex lives and double standards faced by another minority via her Catholic priest male hero, who just so happens to be a closeted homosexual.
Daring to take a humanistic look at terrain we haven’t seen even marginally explored with this degree of tenderness since Miramax’s likewise female helmed controversial ‘94 shocker Priest by filmmaker Antonia Bird, this Berlin Film Festival jury award-winner is as sensitively understated as it is powerfully contemplative.
A cinematic slice of life, Szumowska opts for a naturalistic, fly-on-the-wall approach while establishing our main character in the form of the conflicted, gentle priest Adam (played by an astounding Andrzej Chyra) who works with troubled teen boys at a village parish in the Polish countryside.
From coaching soccer to breaking up fights and intervening when the ignorant locals don’t know what to do for a young woman who falls into an epileptic seizure, Adam has quickly become a prominent community figure and something of a fascinating enigma to admirers of both genders.
The latest in what have been a series of transfers that have pushed Adam further and further out into boonies away from the coveted parishes of the city (following inferences and incidences of homophobic paranoia and suspicion from the higher-ups), the uncertainty of his permanently temporary status has turned him into something of a wandering nomad.
Letting few people in -- some of the film’s most affecting scenes illustrate his sense of loneliness and isolation of a man always off to the sidelines, with frequent barriers like transparent windows or solitary shots of him juxtaposed with masses of others (in and out of mass) to help drive home the internal monologue of a man who doesn’t reveal much through dialogue.
The target of a crush by a determined young woman who plies him with homemade pies, Adam’s slowly evolving bond and slight flicker of a spark ignited in the shared gaze of a local villager (well-played by the filmmaker’s husband, Mateusz Kosciukiewicz) is threatened by the arrival of a sexually aggressive city boy whose gaydar may have picked up on the father’s true orientation.
Uninterested in the priest except to possibly pull at the strand of truth he can sense until it unravels and threatens to humiliate Adam among the villagers, the boy sets his sights on one of the country lads who’d confessed his own confusion in confession after a spontaneous erotic encounter.
Bringing the drama to a slow boil, events reach a dramatic climax as the film continues and Adam realizes that he must face his feelings and the truth that continues to be used as Catholic blackmail to push him from one post to the next.
While the film is gorgeously lensed by the director’s long-term co-writer and cinematic collaborator Michal Englert, there are a few disruptively abrupt editing hiccups that mess with the film’s sensual, cinema verite like flow (that reveal either errors in character blocking in an edit-on-action match cut or sloppily simple continuity mistakes) that pull you out of the graceful rhythm of the piece.
Nonetheless, while it could’ve been tightened up a bit as the pacing lags in the second act, the film’s problems on the whole are relatively and thankfully minor when compared to just how compelling it is overall.
For ultimately it’s the mood of the film (bolstered by the effective employment of “The Funeral” by Band of Horses as a recurring musical motif) and its conversation-worthy portrait of the church, countryside and characters that keep you invested throughout.
And while the ending may be slightly pat indeed, the questions the film raises about whether or not the church’s practices and policies are victimizing our lead rather than setting him free are sure to get open-minded viewers of all religions talking longer after the end of this Film Movement release.
Refreshingly keeping its focus on the father as a human being first as opposed to defining him by any number of characteristics, while a lesser director would’ve ventured into exploiting the church abuse angle, Szumowska is wise enough to keep that out of the equation. To this end, an obvious takeaway and message of the film is that Adam's orientation has nothing to do with how devoted he is to his duties and parishioners.
An altogether thoughtful, hypnotic filmic portrait of often-ignored screen territory by a woman who seems to derive cinematic inspiration from subjects most directors overlook, this Film Movement release finds the filmmaker stepping back from her female-centric explorations of sexuality.
However it only takes a few minutes into In the Name Of until we realize she’s done so “in the name of” the thematically similar purpose of investigating life, liberty, equality, humanity and our universal pursuit of happiness which manages to stay true to and push the boundaries of her oeuvre in all the right ways.
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