Loosely based on a famous real-life case that made headlines in Poland, this drama follows a juvenile delinquent posing as a small town priest.
Based on a screenplay by Mateusz Pacewicz, who wrote an article about the case on which the film is based, director Jan Komasa massages the unlikely idea into a story of second chances and redemption, with a keen eye for the island situation and faintheartedness of a remote rural community .
The cheater cleric Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) is still in jail when we meet him in the opening scene and serves as a lookout for others while they beat up a fellow inmate. With his hair cropped short and hollow cheeks, he is literally and metaphorically the emaciated image of wasted youth.
Shortly afterwards, while on parole, he finds a party and snorts into a stupor.
But the donning of a priest’s collar, his smooth features, piercing blue-gray eyes, and juvie hairdo take on an ascetic quality sufficient to expose disbelief. He’s in a small lumberjack town on his way to a job at the local sawmill, but a cleverly orchestrated first act of misunderstandings, lies, and unexpected opportunities results in him being driven down as a substitute priest.
Komasa puts Corpus Christi in the politically conservative southeast corner of the country, where right-wing parties have their stronghold. There is no explicit reference to contemporary politics, but the irony of the young man’s deception is that he actually turns out to be a fairly effective priest, exposing the hypocrisy of the devout members of the community.
The cameraman Piotr Sobocinski Jr., who knows how to capture light through fog and curtains as if it were something almost solid, gives the rural images of the film a brooding atmosphere.
The city’s aging clergyman (a masterly Zdzislaw Wardejn) indicates a feeling of malaise. It’s a shame that he has to leave the frame so early for the story to unfold, because the exchange between him and his successor – small talk that elegantly and ironically revolves around secrets of a personal and professional nature – is one of the best in the film .
Daniel soon discovers that the community has been hit by a fatal car accident that killed several teenagers, including the caretaker’s son (an impressively grumpy Aleksandra Konieczna). A bulletin board on Main Street adorned with photocopied headshots, fluffy toys, and candles serves as a makeshift memorial tended to by grieving relatives.
Meanwhile, the widow of the drunk driver who was blamed for the accident lives alone and ashamed on the outskirts of the city. Citizens are forbidden to bury the ashes of their loved ones in the cemetery.
Who better to encourage forgiveness than an ex-cheater?
The premise may have ended up as a biting satire of Polish Catholicism, but the film’s more solemn humanism suggests an affirmation of a Christian idea of salvation. You can perhaps feel the influence of the parables in this, an update of the cautionary story against the throwing of the first stone.
Daniel seriously takes on the role of peacemaker, also because he is actually a believer.
Despite the early scenes of clenched jaws and drug use at the Trainspotting level, there are glimpses of a friendship with the prison father (an unshaven Lukasz Simlat projecting cool priest vibes) and even a scene in which he expresses a desire to attend the seminar to enter .
It’s a surprising admission, and his criminal record means it will never happen, but it explains why he is so thoroughly committed to deception. After doing a few quick web searches on his cell phone, he soon takes a confession, says mass, and generally convinces believers with sermons of a general note.
Of course it hits everyone. The mourners, the local teenagers hanging out by the river smoking drugs, the flashy mayor who owns the sawmill. However, his kindred turns out to be the daughter of the caretaker Eliza (Eliza Rycembel), who is also interested in ending the stalemate with the widow.
Rycembel is an inspired casting choice – the only actor in the film whose strong gaze rivals Bielenia’s – and it doesn’t take long before the bond between her characters threatens to turn into a romantic relationship that breaks Daniel’s cover and his mission to heal the church could turn upside down.
“This is a good city, good people,” says Eliza’s mother.
Try saying that to the despised widow Ewa (Barbara Kurzaj). She has suffered from her wickedness, and at 40 it looks like she is sick of living. But it is not a simple, idealized victim or without complexity. They call her “white trash,” and when Komasa comes up with a flattering, voyeuristic view of her back tattoo and a G-string over her jeans, he engages the audience in the disapproving gaze of the self-righteous city dwellers.
That attitude turns out to be Daniel’s point of view, and his reaction is a slightly embarrassed giggle that is infused with sympathy. He knows that if it weren’t for his priest’s collar, the city would likely condemn him too.
His sympathy for Ewa goes hand in hand with an intolerance of hubris. When the mayor forces him to bless the new wing of the sawmill, he preaches a sermon on greed and makes the city’s VIPs kneel in the mud and pray for forgiveness.
The “tell the truth about power” themes result in easily predictable resolutions, and you can imagine a Hollywood remake isn’t out of the question (Academy voters have already nominated it for an Oscar for Best International Feature).
But even with the most imaginative optimism, the film does not lose sight of the world outside its bubble.
One picture is remembered – of Daniel at the altar looking up at a painting of Christ on the cross. The premonition here, perhaps exaggerated but moving nonetheless, suggests that for all the good he does, others don’t show him the same kindness. “Scum”, a policeman calls him on the bus at the beginning of the film as he drives into town. It is a word that echoes in Corpus Christi. Too powerful.
Corpus Christi will be in the cinema from October 22nd.
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