BERLIN - The race for the Golden Bear top prize at the 63rd Berlin film festival began Friday with a Polish drama about a gay Roman Catholic priest who struggles with his secret love for a troubled youth.
"In the Name of" by Malgoska Szumowska, one of three women vying for the Berlinale's Golden Bear top prize, drew warm applause for the story of Adam (Andrzej Chyra), a man of the cloth assigned to a community in rural Poland.
A charismatic and handsome man, he is popular with the residents of the village where he works with delinquent teenagers, including the eccentric loner Lukasz (Mateusz Kosciukiewicz).
His strong feelings for the boy force him to confront the fact that his choice of the priesthood was in fact a flight from his own homosexuality.
The thrill of his infatuation with Lukasz quickly gives way to a spiritual despair and a fear for his future in the Church as the villagers turn against him.
The film presents a Church incapable of dealing with its members' human frailty, as all the villagers are seen wrestling with their own demons.
"My first feeling was to make a film about longing and about love," the Krakow-born director said ahead of the keenly awaited world premiere of the film, which German media highlighted as a possible front-runner for the festival's prizes to be handed out on February 16.
"I think it's hard to imagine a more lonely person than a priest," due to the vow of celibacy that precludes other kinds of human intimacy, she said.
Szumowska said she knew the film, which uses imagery from Christ's passion to depict Adam's inner struggle, would be controversial in her predominantly Catholic home country.
"Suddenly in the Polish newspapers now the topic of our film is very hot. We have a strong discussion in Poland about homosexuality, about the Church, about priests," she said.
"It's very, very important for me to give a voice to certain discussions in Poland."
She said she saw many of the most recent scandals in the Church as rooted in a suppression of desire imposed by Catholic doctrine, which she called "closed and intolerant".
"It doesn't fit with the modern society. It doesn't fit with contemporary times. It's absolutely a paradox. Out of this conflict very bad things happen," she said.
But she said she consciously avoided a story about paedophilia in the Church despite the enormity of the issue over the last several years, saying she wanted to tell a tale of love that is seen as a sin.
Szumowska presented her movie "Elles" starring French actress Juliette Binoche as a reporter investigating female student prostitution last year in the Berlinale's Panorama sidebar section.
Chyra, one of Poland's leading actors who co-starred in "Elles" and in Andrzej Wajda's 2007 "Katyn Story", said Szumowska made him feel comfortable making an explicit sex scene.
"After one year, we shot the love scene," he said. "Finally we matured to touch each other."
The 11-day event kicked off Thursday with a gala screening of the lush martial arts epic "The Grandmaster" by Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai, who is also leading the festival jury this year.
Also in competition Friday is US director Gus Van Sant's anti-fracking feature "Promised Land" starring Matt Damon, who co-wrote the screenplay, and controversial Austrian film-maker Ulrich Seidl's "Paradise: Hope" about a 13-year-old girl who falls for a man four decades her senior.