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Priest or victim

by
27 September 2013

Stephen Brown sees two new films, and the 'final cut' of The Wicker Man

PECCADILLO PICTURES

On thin ice in Poland: Lukasz (Mateusz Kosciukiewicz) and Father Adam (Andrzej Chyra) in Małgosska Szumowska's film In the Name Of

On thin ice in Poland: Lukasz (Mateusz Kosciukiewicz) and Father Adam (Andrzej Chyra) in Małgosska Szumowska's film In the Name Of

THIS is not the first time we have had a film about a gay priest in love, although In the Name Of (Cert. 15) possibly is a breakthrough Polish film on the subject. As such, it is a clarion call for greater understanding and tolerance both within that church hierarchy and among a public more noted for fervour than sexual tolerance.

The much admired actor Andrzej Chyra (the massacre survivor in Katyn) plays Father Adam, stuck in the middle of nowhere, running a community centre for disturbed teenage boys. Charismatic, empathetic, humane, Adam wears brand-name clothes, and swigs beer while listening to and sort- ing out their troubles. Everybody wants to be close to him, including some very attractive women. But beneath this persona that is almost too good to be true lurk secret desires.

Michal (Lukasz Simlat), a teacher and friend who assists him at the centre, takes it upon himself to report some intimacy that he sees occurring between the priest and a young mute, Lukasz (Mateusz Kościukiewicz). The rest of the film deals with officialdom's responses to the situation, divided opinions among the young people over it, and, most poignantly, how Adam faces up to his sexuality. He who has acted as confessor to many others shares these feelings via Skype with his sister in Toronto, and receives an "absolution" denied him by the Church. And Lukasz literally has no voice, offering instead silent worship of Adam.

The title is an intriguing one. It is asking in whose name this priest is being condemned, before answering "Surely not Christ's." The director, Małgosśka Szumowska, has publicly stated that his intention was to show love and the need for love that is perceived as a sin. "A priest, who is only a human, suddenly becomes a victim of his own faith and religion only because he wants to love, moreover because he dares to love another man. I wanted to make a film in which I wouldn't judge my characters, where I take a look at them in a purely human way and defend them."

Human it may be, but methinks it is also rather more than that. The final frame of a post-coital Adam is suffused in the kind of light reminiscent of Old Masters' paintings of the crucified Jesus lying full-length in joyful expectation of resurrection. This image alone feels like a dangling conversation with those who might see things differently in Poland and beyond.


FILMS about philosophy are scarcer than hen's teeth. When The Name of the Rose became a film, Umberto Eco's semiotic musings were jettisoned in favour of a medieval detective story. Ian McEwan suffered likewise with Enduring Love. His arguments about the existence of God give way to a battle of wits over a hot-air balloon. Too many filmmakers follow Sam Goldwyn's dictum: "If you want to send a message, use Western Union."

It is, therefore, cause for celebration that Hannah Arendt (Cert. 12A), a film centring on one of the past century's most famous philosophers, successfully manages to distil some of her ideas as well as activities. Indeed, we see how her original thinking - there are spellbinding images as she reclines on a couch - informs the way she conducts her life.

The film is set mainly in 1961, and it is her perception of the Nazi SS officer Adolf Eichmann's trial for crimes against humanity which causes outrage among fellow Jews and triggers the emotional impact of the film.

Before it takes in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger (Arendt's mentor and sometime lover, whom she met when studying theology), St Augustine, the Holocaust, Zionism, and a meditation on the nature of evil, there is a somewhat disarming prelude. Arendt (Barbara Sukowa), in girlish dialogue at her New York apartment with her friend the novelist Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer), is shown as a vibrant, caring human being, not a detached, cerebral automaton.

We gradually learn of Heidegger's influence on her thinking. In fact, thinking, as she learns from him, is what makes us human. Ultimately, Eichmann's crimes, she declares, arise from a refusal to think for himself. Then he would have had understanding (a favourite Arendt word) of the immensity of his wickedness.

Contending with Jewish and Gentile colleagues and friends, Arendt asserts that "Eichmann is not Mephisto." Instead - and this is partly what gets her excoriated and shunned - the accused man in the glass booth represents "the banality of evil". It is his quotidian, bureaucratic, unquestion-ing acceptance of and collusion with a regime's monstrous policies that, far from exonerating him, confirm his culpability.

The director, Margarethe von Trotta, has made several other films about courageous and strong women, including Hildegard of Bingen. In Hannah Arendt, she keeps the most potent demonstration of these qualities till almost the end, when Sukowa gives a bravura performance as Arendt defending herself in a packed lecture hall. Implicit but, alas, never stated is Arendt's startling idea of Natality (The Human Condition, 1958). With every birth, there is the possibility of beginning something anew and thereby challenging evils which exist. In refusing life's invitation to be a person, Eichmann is the automaton, not Arendt.

The film is ambivalent over her accusation that some Jewish leaders failed to find middle ground between useless resistance to Nazi power and absolute co-operation with it. Paralleling Eichmann's situation, almost the last shot of Arendt has her isolated behind glass, the implication being that she also is on trial. In some respects, so is this remarkable film.


IN LATE 1973, a visit to the cinema included two films plus news and cartoons. The Wicker Man was the supporting feature for the Daphne du Maurier adaptation Don't Look Now: a creepy double bill. Or, strictly speaking, a creepy 1.85-per-cent bill, as approximately 15 minutes were missing from the director Robin Hardy's masterful exploration of Christianity and paganism.

The distributors' reason for the original cuts was that it was "hellishly difficult to market". Forty years on, having amassed huge cult status, academic plaudits, and an American remake, The Wicker Man: The Final Cut (Cert. 15), digitally restored, is now being shown in cinemas.

Hardy enthusiastically endorses it, even though some sequences appear irretrievably lost. To be honest, the restored footage adds little new detail. What it does achieve, though, is less clunky - no joins on show - narrative and more fully rounded characters.

The plot, scripted by Anthony Shaffer (Frenzy, Sleuth) revolves around Sgt Neil Howie's missing-child investigation on a remote Scottish island. But first we see him reading in church from 1 Corinthians 11 on the origins of the eucharist, including (significantly) its reference to betrayal. What then happens to this rather upright policeman partly mirrors St Paul's account, juxtaposed as it is with free-spirited pagan practices.

He suffers temptations, is mocked, receives evasive if not deceitful responses to his questions, and endures great suffering. His final words are those of Walter Raleigh: "Let me not undergo the real pains of hell, dear God, because I die unshriven."

While it is tempting to read the film as uninhibited counterculture putting the status quo to death, Hardy and Shaffer have stated their scepticism about any dogma's placing people in the "thrall of superstition". Here it is primarily the pagans, not the lone Christian, guilty of this. Led by Chris- topher Lee's manipulative Lord of Summer-isle, they do evil in the name of good.

On the other hand, Howie's faith is in thrall to rational and repressive forces. His momentary joy in worship, unlike the islanders', fails to translate into everyday life. The greatness of this film is its capacity for many other readings - feminist, psychoanalytical, sociological etc. - which are explored on the DVD and Blu-ray editions to be released in a few weeks' time.

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