The story of a Catholic priest’s struggle with homosexuality proved to be a personal affair for Polish director Malgoska Szumowska and actor Andrzej Chyra.
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7 Aug 2013 - 12:55 PM  UPDATED 7 Aug 2013 - 12:55 PM

When In the Name Of… premiered at the Berlin Film Festival this year, the Polish film proved engrossing with its story of Father Adam, a progressive priest who does wonders with wayward youths in a rural boy's reformatory—until he oversteps the line and becomes involved with a mildly autistic youth called Lukasz.

I was trying to portray him as a good person and at the same time to show the paradox of faith

The story is not about paedophilia in the Catholic Church, says writer-director Malgoska Szumowska, who has ensured Lukasz is of adult age. It's the human story of a priest's struggle, captured poignantly by leading Polish actor Andrzej Chyra, recently seen opposite Isabelle Huppert at the 2012 Adelaide Festival in Krzysztof Warlikowskiby's controversially modern production of A Streetcar Named Desire.

“I tried to understand a priest who has come to the church when he was adult,” Chyra explains. “He was over 20 years old so it's a really conscious decision. He really cares for these troubled boys and the society.”

The paradox is that for a priest to be able to have empathy with his charges, he perhaps also has to possess normal urges. “He has a few ways to avoid these difficult moments, like when he's running,” notes Chyra. “When he's running, he says he's praying as well.”

In the Name Of… is a personal story for Szumowska. “For more than 10 years I was a practicing Catholic,” she explains. “It inspired me. I used to go to church and I met a lot of priests, who were spiritual advisers, but then suddenly I started growing up and I quit. I noticed an emptiness of the church as an institution. So I know what it means to believe, and the priest in my film, he's a believer, he has faith. I was trying to portray him as a good person and at the same time to show the paradox of faith, that somehow the Church doesn't work any more and he's completely lost in this situation.”

Rising Polish star Mateus Kosciukiewicz, who plays Lukasz, is in fact Szumowska's second husband and the father of her eight-month old daughter. A kind of Emile Hirsch to Chyra's more rugged Daniel Craig. So what was it like directing her husband and Chyra, also a close friend, in the gay sex scene?

“It was easy, maybe because we know each other so well,” Szumowska replies. “They were laughing and I said, 'Can we start to put in the emotions?' We did it in half an hour in only two takes. The fact that they were uncomfortable works really well on screen because the whole idea of the sex scene was that they are doing it for the first time somehow and it's an awakening of sexuality for both sides.”

Chyra, the star of Andrzej Wajda's 2007 Oscar-nominated film, Katyn, is a quietly powerful actor with piercing blue eyes. “He is not classically handsome but the camera loves him,” Szumowska says. Here he was pleased not to have to play the tough guy roles he is known for in Poland; he'd even played a sadistic prostitute's client in Szumowska's Elles, starring Juliette Binoche. In that film, the French beauty had taken quite a leap in her portrayal of a long-married journalist who through her research with prostitutes discovers a new sensuality and famously masturbates rather wildly. Understandably, I was waiting with bated breath when Father Adam started doing that too.

“I learned this from childhood,” Chyra quips. “We did a few versions so I had at least two hours for that!”

Is Szumowska going to include masturbation in all her movies?

“I've always had sexuality somehow in my films,” she admits, “I think it's a very important part of life. We often avoiding talking about this; it's a kind of taboo everywhere and here I particularly wanted to talk about the sexuality of the priest. I didn't care if he was heterosexual or homosexual, because I don't see a big difference. Priests are human beings and the film is about loneliness and how they love closeness. I hope to create a good discussion when the film releases in Poland but I'm afraid it will be used in political discussions, which I don't want to participate in because in Poland it's very aggressive.”

Szumowska surrounds herself with a crew of old friends, a kind of extended family she knows she can trust. She was once married to the film's cinematographer, Michal Englert, whose ability to capture the stunning forests in the Mazury region (where Szumowska shot her 1997 student film, Silence, a documentary listed among the 14 best short films from Lodz Film School of all time) has been highly praised here. She admits she also has a son with the film's editor, Jacek Drosio.

“We're all friends so it works,” she says. “Maybe it's because I'm so independent. My journalist father told me the secret of dealing with men—to keep them guessing and not to ask too much or care too much about them; basically, to take care much more about yourself,” she explains with a chuckle. “Ultimately, we're more like colleagues; I cannot imagine making a film with strangers. Friends of mine who work in Hollywood and are from different countries tell me stories of their terrible trouble with producers and stars and that is not for me.”

In Poland Chyra is as big as stars get. He explains how he had to learn French to act alongside Huppert whom he describes as “maybe the best partner I've met in my career”. He travelled the world with A Streetcar Named Desire, though had visited Australia twice before. “I have an uncle in Sydney, I love the beaches, and I've been to Melbourne and Alice Springs.” Mostly he has worked in the Polish language. He started out late, incredibly directing television quiz shows and talk shows before breaking through as a movie actor in Krzysztof Krauze's 1999 movie The Debt.

“I had problems to begin my career because in Communist times actors refused to do television movies as a political act,” the 48-year-old explains. "I don't like to do television any more because it's not a good way of working." He has long directed and acted in the theatre and this year won the Jan Kiepura award for best director for the Shostakovich opera, The Gamblers. He consistently works at Teatr Nowy (New Theatre) where Krzysztof Warlikowskiby is the artistic director. “We are playing abroad more than in Poland,” he says.

Szumowska knew she could rely on Chyra to the extent that she allowed him to write his priest's inspiring sermons for the youths in the film. Mostly the youths were non-actors (Blondie is the exception) drawn from the local community.

“We spent a couple of days with them beforehand,” Kosciukiewicz explains. “They were poor boys from the countryside with problems but also a big sensitivity inside. They were fast to learn acting. It was really difficult for us to know if they were being totally true but we were the pretenders for sure.”

Kosciukiewicz is not the quiet one in real life. He admits he was rebellious at school. “I finished school but not my acting studies. They kicked me out four times I think and I never finished.”

Interestingly, he had played Chyra's son in Jacek Borcuch's 2009 film, All That I Love, which screened in Sundance and was Poland's official Oscar entry. He says he has become known for playing traumatised young men, the romantic outsider. He won the best actor prize at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival for 2010's Mother Teresa of Cats, which he says, “was about a guy who killed his mother”. He will next be seen in Wajda's Walesa, which world premieres at the Venice Film Festival.

Szumowska now plans to reteam with Binoche for a film loosely based on Szumowska's relationship with her sister. While she doesn't want to speak about the plot yet, she says with typical aplomb. “It will be awesome!” They are currently deciding whether to do it in English or French.

In the Name Of... screens at the 2013 Melbourne International Film Festival.Visit the official website for more information.