Journey of a country priest: Malgoska Szumowska explores a Polish cleric’s struggle with 'In the Name of'

"Oh, it was easy!" So says Malgoska Szumowska about getting funding for her film In the Name of, the Film Movement release debuting on Oct. 30. This is refreshing, yet startling, so different from the usual litany of troubles involved with financing original film projects, especially for women writer-directors. About 50 percent of the money came from the Polish Film Institute, Szumowska notes, adding that the Institute happens to be run by a woman. She further explains that in Poland, other backing is provided by film distributors, which is a pattern to be seen in many European countries, such as France. Some money came from Canal Plus.

It does give you pause in thinking about the parallel situation in the U.S., but we don’t dwell on that in our talk by Skype from Warsaw, on a Saturday morning. It wouldn’t be in the character of Szumowska anyway, who seems to give a positive, sometimes even off-the wall, spin on things. Take, for instance, her interpretation of the critical drubbing received by Elles, her 2011 film about prostitution which included a pro-forma feminist stance, all seen through the eyes of a journalist played by Juliette Binoche. The movie made two very important things happen for Szumowska, she says. She got to meet and work with Binoche, who she will direct again early in 2014, in a film to be called The Body. And Elles so impressed the director of the Berlin Film Festival, Szumowska reveals, that doors were opened for her. Indeed, In the Name of received a Teddy Award, the official LGBT or “Queer” award, for best LGBT feature at the 2013 Berlinale. (She also said she believes Elles may have been too intimate, too close—the female masturbation sequences come to mind—especially for men in the audience.)

Once again, though, controversy is on her plate, as are a couple of worrisome things. In the Name of, or W imie in Polish, is being touted in Poland as “the movie about a gay priest,” in Szumowska’s words. In fact, she and her co-writer, cinematographer Michal Englert, were scrupulous, she contends, about subtly, slowly revealing the film’s topic: homosexuality in the Catholic Church. Too elegantly integrated to be called red herrings, one thinks particularly of the scene where Andrzej Chyra as Father Adam gets up from a community dining table to dance with the wife of his co-worker; it seems at first the film may be a Polish “Thorn Birds.”

"We were very, very careful to not give hints about his being gay,” Szumowska says, “The movie is more about loneliness. I used to be a Catholic. I know priests. I know their isolation.” She also mentions many stories which inspired her: tales of priests leaving the Church, usually because of falling in love with a woman. “But nobody talks about this officially.”

In the Name of is definitely not about pederasty, or any of the current problems of the Catholic Church, Szumowska insists. Still, she laughs good-humoredly, referring to the central love story between Father Adam and one of his charges, Lukasz. "I'm being attacked both from the very left, a younger crowd, who felt I wasn’t critical enough of the Church, and of course by the older, more right-wing contingent. I'm right in the middle.”

Szumowska is 40 years old (a good age for her, she says), the daughter of two famous Polish writers, and the sister of a documentary filmmaker. In another disarming admission, she says that her parents, whom she clearly adored, are now dead, but she did not do any of her important work until after their death. She doesn’t psychoanalyze this, but simply lets this observation hang out there as somehow significant.

Szumowska graduated from the famous Lodz Film School, where she got recognition for her student work. Subsequent films include the short The Silence (1999), Happy Man (2000), Stranger (2004) and 33 Scenes from Life (2008).

The theme of working in a family-like environment comes up again and again. Nearly all of her movies have been made with editor Jacek Drosio, and with Englert, to whom she was once married. She is now married to Mateusz Kosciukiewicz, who spectacularly plays Lukasz. There are no “issues,” she says. "It's easier to work with people I'm close with. In working with Mateusz, I only needed a couple of takes. I just say, rather coldly, what I want and it’s a kind of shorthand. That’s my directing style anyway. This is one reason why it is so easy for me to stay in Warsaw, though for a time I thought I would like to work in New York City, and I have worked and lived in France.” Nevertheless, she admits that the script took four years to write, though most of it was in the research and “simmer” stage. (Uncharacteristically, the director takes a swipe at the selection of the co-writer for Elles, a choice forced on her by the production company, she says.)

One thing she hopes the film will bring attention to, and not be obscured by the semi-controversial nature of the topic, is the movie’s setting. She calls it "Poland B,” in the Mazury region. Translated from Polish, it’s the "Land of a Thousand Lakes,” a poverty-ridden area with a near-untouched natural landscape. There were practical reasons too, as her family had a home on one of the lakes there which she used to house her crew. She describes the area as part of Poland that the Communists had set up. "But when they [the Communists] left,” she notes, “they left people who didn't know what to do with themselves. They had no training and much of the motivation had been taken out of them. They simply stayed on the land.”

The film uses a mix of professional and local non-actors. For instance, Lukasz’s mother is played by a highly regarded theatrical actress, yet his brother is portrayed by a town resident who had never acted before.

In the Name of centers on a kind of rehabilitation camp for wayward boys. As a priest in a higher position explains it, Father Adam (Chyra) has been able to work wonders with disturbed, challenged, even violent boys. And so he was posted to this remote village. Chyra, a huge star in Poland, is most convincing as this conflicted but very loving priest.

Two scenes really stand out. One Szumowska says is her favorite is when the mysterious Lukasz suddenly breaks away from a walk with the priest, and races into a cornfield. Father Adam goes looking for him, and they start to communicate through a primitive language. In the director’s words, “There is erotic texture, but no physical contact. They have a kind of animal freedom.” It is in fact unlike anything you’re likely to see on screen this year. The other is the emotive processional led by Father Adam at the end of the film, as Szumowska uses her documentary-like skills to show the face of each character, and we think of the complicated relationship each has had with the priest. It’s not lugubrious, maybe because, as Szumowska says, “I got the idea to use rock music, ‘Band of Horses,’ as a backdrop.”

Does Szumowska see herself in any particular school of filmmaking, or would she give herself a label? "No. That's for critics to figure out."