Once in a while you want to remain in your seat after the closing credits appear – you find yourself unable to simply get up and go back to your daily life. The movies that leave you in this state have such power that you cannot be indifferent to them, mindlessly indulging in the entertainment they nonetheless offer. The Polish nominee for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film Corpus Christi (2019) is indeed one of these films.
It is the story of twenty-year old Daniel who is kept in a detention centre because of his criminal past. Soon, due to a coincidence, he is mistaken for a priest and is asked to replace the vicar of a small town for a short period of time. He becomes the spiritual leader of this local community, which was recently broken by a tragedy the year before. Implausible as it may seem, the plot is inspired by true events that occurred in Poland in 2011.
Corpus Christi is incredibly multifaceted, and true pleasure can be found in exploring the different dimensions of possible interpretations. The deliberate avoidance of explicit conclusions and stereotypes facilitates these explorations, and makes the film equally appealing to religious people and atheists alike. This is because on the one hand Corpus Christi is about religion, more specifically, Catholicism, in a modern iteration, but on the other, it constitutes a parable about good and evil, a tale of redemption, and an account of adolescence. Polish viewers will certainly find that the film offers insightful commentary on the provincial life, but the movie by no means needs to be considered in this specific national context.
The director, Jan Komasa does a great deal of work to look at Catholicism with honesty, without prejudices and one-sidedness. The movie does not constitute an uncritical celebration but neither does it offer a total condemnation. The characters are very complex. For example, Daniel is more of a coach than a priest. He may not know the technicalities of theology, but he does speak to people from the bottom of his heart. His words are fierce and he knows how important and difficult forgiveness is, partly because of his own past. Throughout the movie, it is easy to forget about Daniel’s criminal record, which, once reminded, only intensifies the film’s messaging around the dualism of human nature.
All of this would not be possible without a brilliant script from twenty-eight-year-old Mateusz Pacewicz. The seriousness of the issues with which Corpus Christi is preoccupied is balanced with many humorous dialogues and one-liners that prevent the movie from becoming too “heavy”. As to the director, Corpus Christi is quite different from director Jan Komasa’s previous works, especially in terms of means of expression, but it certainly gives us hope for his future work.
Last but not least, Corpus Christi is a concerto of outstanding acting performances. Bartosz Bielenia, playing Daniel, literally hypnotises with his intense gaze. His experience is visible in the way he operates his body, fully aware of his distinctive physiognomy and taking full advantage of it. He perfectly embodies every role his character takes on – a hooligan from a detention centre, a charismatic priest, and, most of all, a lost young man.
Bielenia’s performance is complemented by an excellent group of supporting characters. Aleksandra Konieczna, playing a sexton whose way of looking at the world is deeply entwined with her faith, does not disappoint. She strikes just the right balance between exaggeration and understatement; every single grimace in her performance is significant. Her daughter, played by Eliza Rycembel, manages to manifest a natural youthfulness in the role even while maintaining her character’s complexity. Other actors, such as Tomasz Ziętek as Daniel’s friend from the detention centre and Łukasz Simlat as another priest, succeed in portraying the full depth of their characters, irrespective of the screen time they have been given.
The Church, apart from its meaning as an institution, is also, very simply, a body of believers. Corpus Christi is all about these believers, these humans, and their complicated problems and choices. To that end, the film has a lot to offer to every viewer and is well worth watching.