This is a tragic and disturbing tale of faith, shame, secrets and one man’s quest for love.
Adam is a Catholic priest who cares deeply about his flock. As the movie opens he is assigned to a boys’ school in the Polish coutryside—mind you, the “boys” are actually in their late teens, and looking back I’m not sure it’s really a school. They seem to spend a lot of their time digging ditches, moving heavy equipment around and other manual labour. From the dialog I think this lot seems to have come from a very harsh reform school, and the bad ones are threatened with being shipped back there.
In one scene the school director’s wife point-blank asks Adam how he could get transfered from Krakow to a nowhere shithole like this, and he calmly replies that priests do get moved around, and he goes wherever the Church chooses to send him. But in fact, he had been having sexual relations with a boy under his charge (around the same age as the boys in this place, so he was probably of legal age) and the church authorities had to move him.
Adam finds himself attracted to new student Lukasz, a very troubled boy who apparently was a bit of a pyromaniac. What complicates things is that the attraction is mutual, though for a long time the two don’t go beyond hugs and lingering looks. They do bond emotionally, though; in one awesome scene, the two of them are walking back from the lake where Adam had been teaching Lukasz how to swim, and Lukasz runs off into a nearby cornfield to play hide and seek. Instead of leaving him or acting like a stern authority figure, Adam decides to meet him on his terms and play for a while, even echoing Lukasz’ weird apelike howls.
But this delicate situation can’t last: the school director sees Adam and Lukasz parked together by the side of the road—in broad daylight, and nothing really happened, but it looks wrong enough that he reports it to the local bishop. In what is easily the creepiest scene in the movie, the bishop assures him that no, he didn’t really see anything wrong. Yes, he was right to report it, but now there’s no need to make a big deal out of it. The poor guy was asked to lie to himself to help the Church save face.
And so Adam is transferred again, his record tainted even further. Lukasz torches the local convenience store, where some local assholes used to bully him. When we catch up with them it’s at least several months later, possibly a year or two. Lukasz got his life together and is working construction not too far from the old school. He hears that Adam is living close by, and he immediately leaves work to find with him. Poor Adam has sunk even further into drink and depression, living by himself in a dingy hovel—possibly still in the priesthood, though I’m not sure. In one of the movie’s few bright spots, they kiss (awkwardly) and go on to share a tender night.
This movie could be seen as a critique of the Catholic Church. And yes, that’s part of it; but the Church authorities don’t exist in a vacuum. Do the problems start with bishops’ top-down authoritarianism, expecting not only obedience, but complete faith in their right to dictate reality? Or with lonely priests doing a mostly thankless job, held to impossibly high standards but with no real emotional support? Or with lay people’s acceptance of their doctrine? Or with these boys’ ignorance and casually homophobic bullying of each other? Under the veneer of rituals and traditions, of hymns and incense and lovely golden crosses, the roots of Catholicism are at best flawed, and at worst downright poisonous.
It’s an ugly picture all around, and we’re given no easy answers. Except maybe that, in this messed-up world, you should follow your heart and find what joy you can. Save yourself first, then worry about saving others.