Polish film “Corpus Christi”, which recently got nominated for Best International Film Oscar, turns out to be more solemn and serious than I expected from its absurd premise. Although it may be a little too dry for general audiences out there as your average arthouse drama film, the movie mostly works as an intense and intriguing tale about faith and redemption, and I appreciate its thoughtful storytelling coupled with an electrifying lead performance at its center.
At the beginning, we are introduced to Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia), a young man who has been held in a youth detention center since he committed a serious crime some time ago. While he is not exactly a model case of rehabilitation as shown from the opening scene, he also seems to be quite serious about becoming a priest, so he tells Father Tomasz (Łukasz Simlat) about his growing desire to attend a seminary when he is about to be released on parole, but Father Tomasz flatly reminds him that he cannot be a priest due to his criminal record, though he genuinely cares about Daniel’s future in contrast to other guards and supervisors in the youth detention center.
Anyway, Father Tomasz has already arranged a job position for Daniel, and Daniel is soon sent to a sawmill located near some small rural town, but he does not see any future from that drab place at all. When he subsequently goes to the town and then enters a local chapel, he comes to pass himself off a young traveling priest recently ordained to priesthood in Warsaw, and his impulsive disguise works better than he thought mainly thanks to a clerical collar he stole before getting out of the youth detention center.
Daniel’s plan is simply staying at the residence of the town priest just for a few days, but then he comes to stay longer than expected when the town priest suddenly has to spend a long time at a certain medical facility outside the town. Daniel certainly feels quite nervous about becoming an acting priest, but, what do you know, he quickly gets accustomed to his new circumstance. For example, he quickly does some Google search for learning the protocols of those religious services including listening to the confessions from a bunch of parishioners, and we get a small moment for laugh when he gives one of them a practical advice on the misbehavior of that parishioner’s son.
In case of routine sermons, Daniel mostly depends on what he has absorbed from the Bible and Father Tomasz’s sermons, but then he begins to do some improvisations. As he continues to preach about many things including faith and redemption, the mood amidst the parishioners becomes livelier than before, and he soon comes to function as someone to console many people in the town, who have been grieving a lot over a recent tragic accident which led to the sudden early death of several young town people.
Watching these people frequently holding a vigil in front of a makeshift shrine near the chapel, Daniel decides to do as much as he can for leading them to healing and closure, and there is a humorous scene where he has them go through a rather silly act of therapy, but he also comes to learn about how people can be quite cruel because of tragedy. Everyone in the town blames a dead man who is presumed be responsible for the accident, and his widow has been harassed a lot by others in the town even though she has nothing to do with the accident.
When Daniel attempts to rectify this unjust circumstance for that widow, he instantly finds himself clashing with many people in the town. The mayor of the town, who is incidentally a businessman who owns the very sawmill where Daniel was supposed to work, does not welcome much the disturbance caused by Daniel’s attempt to give a proper burial to that widow’s dead husband, and he sternly warns Daniel not to go further at one point, but Daniel, who has been quite more confident than before as more comfortable with his disguise, shows some defiance when he holds a ritual of blessing at the mayor’s sawmill.
However, he also feels more conflicted as becoming more sincere and passionate about his self-ordained vocation – especially when he faces that lingering possibility of getting exposed at any point. While the mood becomes more tense as he gets cornered by a certain supporting character later in the story, the movie wisely does not overplay that part, and the same thing can be said about Daniel’s growing relationship with Lidia (Aleksandra Konieczna), a young woman who becomes slowly attracted to Daniel after their first encounter at the chapel.
In the end, there comes an inevitable narrative point where Daniel has to make some crucial choices (Is this a spoiler?), but Mateusz Pacewicz’s screenplay surprises us with the finale which does not give an easy way out for its complex hero, and director Jan Komasa sticks to his austere storytelling approach till the very final scene. As often closely observing its hero, the movie depends a lot on the presence and talent of its lead actor, and Bartosz Bielenia is quite captivating in a performance which may be regarded as a major breakthrough in his nascent acting career.
Overall, “Corpus Christi” may look plain compared to its fellow Oscar nominees including “Parasite” (2019) and “Pain and Glory” (2019), but it is still an engaging religious drama film with good moments to reflect on. To be frank with you, I think you will appreciate it more especially if you are a Catholic churchgoer like some of my acquaintances, and I would love to hear their opinions on the movie.