Corpus Christi

Films & TV

“Redemption comes in many colours and Corpus Christi paints them delightfully,” says Jonathan Sargeant in this review of a Polish film based on true events and nominated for the 2020 Academy Award for Best International Feature

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During a recent lecture in a subject I teach at St Francis College, the question of what films depict authentic representations of priests was raised. Too often the silver screen depicts doddering clergy who mean well but are largely ineffectual. But there is a nice tradition of realistic priests in film, from the French drama Diary of a Country Priest (1951) to the crime drama On the Waterfront (1954) to more recent examples like the Irish black comedy Calvary (2014), Scorsese’s historical epic Silence (2016) and American drama First Reformed (2017). Each deals with different aspects of ordained life, from doubt to sacrifice and beyond. That list has a new addition: Polish director Jan Komasa’s Corpus Christi.

Bartosz Bielenia plays Daniel, recently emerged from juvenile detention and on route to probation at a rural sawmill. That life is not for him though; he walks into the local church to pray and, wearing a pilfered clerical collar, declares himself a priest on pilgrimage. Before too long the local priest is out of action on medical leave and Daniel’s role as ‘Father Tomasz’ becomes central in the small town. He leads masses, takes confession, works with broken parents grieving a tragic car accident which killed several teens and deals with the corrupt mayor. But not everyone is a fan. Can the truth about ‘Father Tomasz’ stay hidden? And should it?

Corpus Christi is based on true events and the script by Mateusz Pacewicz plays it straight. That is significant; it’s easy to imagine this story milking a schmaltzy vein, or even aiming for laughs. There are lovely moments of levity (thank heavens for smart phones when you need to remember the words of absolution!) but the film is dealing with weightier issues and carries off some substantial theological throughlines.

Daniel was inspired by the ministry of his priest while in detention. It is his name that Daniel adopts. He had even asked the priest about entering a seminary but was told his convict past would preclude him. “Each of us is a priest of Christ,” Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat) tells him, and “there are many other ways to do good in life.” So, who gets to speak for God? And who gets to authorise this? That Daniel might be a more effective priest than the incumbent in the end is never really an issue. This is not a competition. But the true nature of forgiveness and sin for the central character (and others) is at the forefront, both in terms of his past and the town’s future. Trauma and how communities deal with it also take centre stage. The nature of what the reign of God looks like in modern Poland is explored: showering water on the congregation during a jubilant baptism, Daniel is moved to declare, “The kingdom of heaven on earth, it’s right here, right now.” In the moment, the congregation responds with thrilled applause.

The impact of Corpus Christi is amplified by the central performance of Bielenia as the charismatic Daniel. His piercing eyes manage to convey edges of fear and exultation in subsequent moments. Like a young Christopher Walken, the nascent actor makes the transition from prison inmate to local peacemaker an altogether organic one, maintaining an edge of true humanity that has many in his parish drawn to him.

As a true believer in the responsibilities of the Church to ordain people, I actually found myself hoping Daniel’s secret would remain hidden. This, however, is a tale of realism, and the ending delivers an intense seismic jolt that agreeably leaves questions to be pondered.

That this is only Komasa’s third feature is quite astounding. His touch with the actors to extract nuanced performances and ability to capture the Polish countryside in shades of exquisitely beautiful desaturated grey are remarkable.

Redemption comes in many colours and Corpus Christi paints them delightfully.

Corpus Christi, rated MA, is directed by Jan Komasa. It will be released on Thursday 22 October 2020 by Palace Films, with some advanced screenings.

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