To what extent are faith and religion truly synonymous? This is the wildly blasphemous question I found myself considering during Jan Komasa’s Corpus Christi, a film that premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, en route to an ultimately successful tour on the festival circuit that culminated in a Best International Feature Film nomination at this year’s Academy Awards. Komasa’s third fictional feature is a difficult watch, but it could very well be a rewarding one.
My biggest frustration with Corpus Christi stems from the fact that it is predicated entirely upon a lie. Our film opens on the daily life of our protagonist Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) as he finishes the final few days inside a youth penitentiary. Their world is a cruel one, but Daniel finds solace through fervent participation in the daily mass. As he is paroled Daniel enquires about transitioning into priesthood. He is denied on the basis of his criminal past.
Daniel, however, is undeterred. He is sent to work in a sawmill in a remote Polish village as part of his parole. Once he arrives, he is mistaken for a priest, a reality that spirals out of control when the present vicar is temporarily out of commission, leaving Daniel in full control of the religious affairs of the parish. Thus, Corpus Christi becomes about the eventual descent into the lie it is spinning. Daniel is not a priest. He is merely posing as one. There is an inevitability to the story, an endpoint where Daniel’s deception is discovered.
Komasa attempts to plainly lay out just how religious Poland is for the uninitiated. There is religious iconography everywhere. One striking shot involves Daniel returning home late at night, and in the background, a massive statute of St. John Paul II looms behind him. It’s a reminder of the fact that one of the most important figures of Catholicism in the late 20th Century, was in fact, a Polish hero who is routinely credited with being a major part of the fall of communism throughout the world.
Daniel’s arrival coincides with a difficult time for the parish. A car crash that resulted in seven deaths, six of them young teenagers, has divided the town. The blame has been squarely placed upon the lone driver, who has been not included in the memorials to the fallen youths. As Daniel delves deeper into the mystery, he realizes that healing process cannot occur. He strikes up a close relationship with Eliza (Eliza Rycembel), whose brother was lost in the crash, and the two set about uncovered the buried truth.
Komasa’s attempt to build several mysteries into Corpus Christi is greatly appreciated. At the very least, it alleviates much of the tension from the “convict hiding in plain sight plot”. It the performance of Bartosz Bielenia, however, that really carries the film. It’s a role that necessitates sympathy, in that, it demands the audience both absolve Daniel’s past crimes and present sacrilege in the hopes that he will succeed in saving the town’s soul. The heaviness that sits on top of the film is almost entirely predicated on the fact that we need this young man to get a second chance he will ultimately never receive.
It’s a role that Bielenia succeeds greatly in. So much of the film revolves around the small facial changes he undergoes throughout the picture. There’s a deep discomfort that passes over his face during an obvious mistake his first mass that is tremendously painful, but also, is one that shifts into pure bliss as he finds his comfort zone during his homily. It’s the actor’s eyes that stay with me, however, particularly in the film’s climactic moments.
Bielenia’s performance also drowns out the film in some respects. It’s the kind of performance that is so strong it becomes difficult to talk about the film’s other elements, even if they are quite strong (the excellently composed cinematography of Pitor Sobociński Jr. is the most notable casualty in this regard). But it also papers over cracks in the film. You let the film take you where its needs to.
In many respects, this allows Corpus Christi to keep its bleak tone throughout the film. This is undoubtedly an Eastern European Art film that has tremendous empathy for its characters, but in a pained way. This is a deeply human story of grief, religion, faith and forgiveness. You’ll come for the performance, and you might get a little more than you would otherwise expect out of the film. You’ll definitely remember the performance though.
- Release Date: 2/21/2020