Chances are you’ve had a dream you probably can’t accomplish.
Perhaps you dreamed of being a hot-shot NBA star but you’re 5’1” and not likely to set foot out of Aotearoa. Maybe you’d love to be a doctor, but your math’s and science has never been up to scratch.
I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t try to find a way to fake it… otherwise there’d quite possibly be a film about you. Corpus Christi, on the other hand, is based on the true story of one man’s attempt to become a clergyman without ever setting foot in a seminary.
Corpus Christi is a Polish-language film written by Mateusz Pacewicz and directed by Jan Komasa. Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) finds God while he is serving time in a juvenile detention centre. Assisting the detention centre’s priest, Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat) during Masses, Daniel wants to enter a seminary but is unable to due to his crimes. Instead, he faces a new start outside of the detention centre working at a Sawmill.
However, he doesn’t even set foot in the sawmill on release, instead opting to seek solace in the town’s local church. A small lie and a stolen collar sees Daniel whisked away to see the village’s priest (Zdzislaw Wardejn). It feels like divine timing: the priest is unwell and needing treatment, and will need someone to step in.
What starts as a lie sees Daniel assume the name of his former mentor, Father Tomasz, and soon he is conducting Mass, taking confession (thanks to a handy how-to guide on his phone), and delivering last rites. Daniel’s initial steps into the religious world are a hesitant copy of his former mentor, but he soon well and truly finds his feet and becomes a beloved member of the community.
Daniel soon discovers that this is a village that has been broken by tragedy. At the local memorial site there are six photos of the victims, despite there being seven victims in all. Daniel slowly begins to discover why the seventh victim isn’t also being remembered.
Infact, this victim isn’t even allowed the dignity of a funeral in the village. Daniel passionately attempts to help the families of the victims to heal using some of the techniques he’d learned at the juvenile detention centre, being unashamed to call out the unfairness of God’s plan in sermons and prayer.
At the same time, he tries to gain forgiveness for the seventh victim and help the victim’s widow, Ewa, to heal.
It’s apparent that a certain narrative about the tragedy is convenient for the village, including the town’s mayor, Walkiewicz (Leszek Lichota). Forgiveness is inconvenient for Walkiewicz. It’s much easier to believe a comfortable narrative that can be easily agreed on by an entire village than to dig deeper and ask difficult questions.
There’s a lot of hypocrisy in this small village. A mother confesses to beating her son because he smokes cigarettes, but she smokes them herself. Walkiewicz’s runs the Sawmill that hires ex-convicts and exploits them with inhumane working conditions.
The families of the accident victims will attend Mass faithfully each Sunday but then send vile letters to the widow of the seventh victim. But then, Daniel is also a hypocrite if we’re really honest: he’s a drinking, smoking, coke-snorting, fornicating, head-butting ex-convict who has lied to achieve the position he’s currently in and although he’s making a difference in the community and rehabilitating his own sins, he’s still a sinner.
Nothing is black and white here.
Faith, redemption and forgiveness are hugely complicated subjects that are explored deeply in Corpus Christi. Daniel may be making a difference, but he’s battling his own demons. Is it selfish to help his community in order to help absolve him of his own crimes? Perhaps.
Can we separate the sinner from the sin?
The village hasn’t been able to do this with the seventh victim, but we as the viewer are able to detach ourselves from Daniel’s past because of his charisma and honest, deep faith. So are we as the viewer hypocrites as well? That’s for you to judge.
Make no mistake, if you’re going into Corpus Christi thinking you’ll be treated a quirky Sister Act-style romp, you’ll be disappointed.
But you will instead be rewarded with a deeply emotional film which is equal parts beautiful and devastating. Just as Daniel is the glue that holds the village together, it is the performance of Bartosz Bielenia that brings all of the threads of this film together in a compelling way.
His performance veers from ecstatic to chaotic, depending upon what is needed in a scene. It’s hard not to watch him at the pulpit and feel the deep love that Daniel feels for his faith. Bielenia has an uncanny ability to use his eyes to truly emote in every single scene, with micro-expressions which are hard to fake.
You will be completely drawn into the story thanks to his incredible performance, and I believe he will continue to be a powerful performer in years to come (and will hopefully also cross over into bigger English language productions as well).
The narrative of Corpus Christi is tight and beautifully executed, allowing for the exploration of the subject matter with its fully fleshed out characters and themes. There is nothing cheesy or ham-fisted about the plot, and the final third is some of the most emotionally beautiful and devastating cinema you are likely to see in a long time.
Corpus Christi is a film which I believe will come to have even more poignancy and recognition as time goes by. It’s a film which deserves to be recognised as a powerful example of international cinema and will hopefully become a classic.