Starring: Bartosz Bielenia, Aleksandra Konieczna, Eliza Rycembel
Runtime: 115 mins. Reviewed in Oct 2020
Polish film on Catholic themes run the gamut of taste.
On one side is 2013’s exquisite “Ida” in which the novice nun of the title (Agata Trzebuchowska) learns that, although raised Catholic, she’s really Jewish, a discovery that leads her on a search for her family roots. The other extreme is 2018’s “Kler” (“The Clergy”), a bawdy satire about alcoholic, sexually rampant priests.
“Corpus Christi” (Film Movement; streaming venues are available at: https://www.filmmovement.com/corpus-christi) registers as belonging to the raunchier side of that scale.
It’s a conundrum. The movie, Oscar-nominated in the best international film category, takes Christian faith seriously, which puts it on a par with 2018’s “First Reformed.” But its often-cynical portrayal of the priesthood and the faithful may disturb many.
Unlike an American film with a religious-chicanery plot (1992’s “Sister Act” and the 1989 version of “We’re No Angels” come to mind), there’s no sentimental ending. In fact, “Corpus Christi” concludes as violently as it begins.
It’s rooted in a known phenomenon in Poland in which young men impersonated priests, mostly for the perceived financial benefit, for at least brief periods in rural communities where no one was too inquisitive.
This makes it a challenge for Catholic audiences. Director Jan Komasa and screenwriter Mateusz Pacewicz, who reworked his book about imposter priests, tell the grim story of 20-year-old Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia). Just paroled from a juvenile detention facility, Daniel, having found his faith there as an altar server, wishes to enter a seminary and become a priest.
It’s not made terribly clear, but his offense was second-degree murder, and the dialogue gives the impression that drug abuse was a contributing factor.
His criminal past makes the priesthood an impossibility, and Daniel’s unhappy about being sent to a remote community a considerable distance away, where he’s been assigned work in a sawmill.
The nearby church holds far more appeal and, while stopping there briefly to pray, he gets into a conversation with a young woman, Eliza (Eliza Rycembel), who seems to think he might be a priest assigned to help the alcoholic local pastor (Zdzislaw Wardejn).
Daniel produces a clerical collar he stole from the prison chaplain, and he’s quickly, to his horror, drawn into his own fakery. He’s violating parole, so the moment he’s discovered, he’ll be serving the rest of his sentence.
Even the pastor doesn’t ask a lot of questions and, since he didn’t attend the same seminary Daniel claims to have graduated from, the illusion continues and the story takes on the qualities of a fable. When the real clergyman takes a leave of absence for treatment, Daniel has to take over all the parish responsibilities.
The middle third of the film changes tone completely. Despite a bumpy start hearing confessions (a phone app helps), Daniel, as Father Tomasz — he’s also stolen the chaplain’s name, and his initial homily is something recalled from his prison days — is compassionate and courageous, and parish life provides him with the first comfortable existence he’s known.
The community also has an urgent need for such a priest. A drunk driver killed six residents and himself, and the mourning of the families has not ceased. Daniel has to help them through their pain and find a solution to their shunning of the driver’s widow, since the pastor refused to bury him in the church cemetery. He also stands up to the mayor-sawmill owner, who wants the tragedy quickly forgotten.
At one point, Daniel even defends celibacy, saying that, if those are the rules, one must conform. He’s very much the model cleric, which makes the ending all the more tragic.
The deception eventually unravels, and Daniel is shown to still be very prone to outbursts of violence, despite his spiritual transformation.
The misguided idea presented here, from a Catholic perspective, is that priestly authority originates with the congregation and not with sacramental ordination by a bishop in the line of apostolic succession. More mundanely, there’s also the always-disturbing notion that good intentions can cover for a decided lack of consistent expertise.
Whether the parishioners are merely dupes is not examined. But Komasa explores their grief with a commendable sensitivity.
In Polish. Subtitles.
The film contains religious themes requiring mature discernment, some bloody violence, two nonmarital sexual encounters, brief male rear nudity, drug use and frequent rough language.
Kurt Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.
This subtitled Polish film tells the story of a 20-year-old Polish ex-convict who wants to become a priest and fakes becoming one in a Polish village. The film was selected as the Polish entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards in 2020, and has won 11 Polish Academy Awards including Best Film, Best Director, Best Script, and Best Actor. The movie has a Catholic title, that is instantly recognisable as meaning (in Latin), “The Body of Christ”, which celebrates the transubstantiation of bread and wine at a Catholic Mass.
Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) is a troubled 20-year-old youth, serving a term in a Warsaw youth detention centre for a serious violent crime. The movie starts in a reform institution from which Daniel is about to be released. In detention, he shares his desire to become a Catholic priest with the head priest, Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat), who arranges his release. While on parole, he goes to a village to work at a sawmill that is willing to employ under-age convicts. Wandering away from the mill, he visits the town’s local Catholic church where he slips effortlessly into the pretence of being a priest. The ageing alcoholic parish priest of the church (Zdzislaw Wardejn) mistakes Daniel for his replacement, and believes what Daniel is pretending to be. He asks Daniel to take charge for a short time, and Daniel anxiously agrees to assume all the duties of a priest, including saying Mass. The town’s villagers respond positively to his spontaneity and personal warmth.
Daniel styles himself on Father Tomasz, who told him that he could never expect to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. The community is traumatised, however, by Daniel raising questions about a head-on car collision that occurred in the village in its past, and which claimed the lives of seven people in the town. Daniel thinks he can help with their suffering, but the mayor of the town insists that the issue is closed. Daniel’s questions raise feelings of blame and many of the townspeople think the death of their loved ones was not an accident. Daniel thinks the driver of the colliding car, should now be buried in the village cemetery together with the other victims.
Letters are released by Marta (Eliza Rycembel), that expose the venom of people in the village, for the loss of their loved ones, and their lack of forgiveness for those involved. Marta is the daughter of the housekeeper (Alexsandra Konieczna) to the parish priest and she is victimised for releasing the letters. But when Daniel moves to conduct the funeral that he desires, the townspeople’s anger begins to respond to the force of his goodness. At the ceremony, Daniel’s lie is exposed by Father Thomasz, who arrives after learning that Daniel is faking being a priest. Returned to prison, Daniel faces the wrath of his fellow inmates, who eventually – symbolically – permit him to be free.
This is a highly original film that focuses on the ambiguity of pious people and their deeds. Some scenes, such as Daniel’s sex with Marta, the saying of Mass by someone who is not a priest, and Daniel’s efforts to handle the demands of confession with the help of a smart-phone are genuinely confronting, but the criticisms the film levels against apparent piety are fiercely challenging. The film shows an ex-convict behaving in a Christian way when a Church, and those who claim membership of it, have failed to practise their religious beliefs. The narrative thrust of the film is an extraordinarily reversal of what the viewer expects, and the device works well. Daniel becomes the instrument of Christian healing and comfort, and his behaviour represents his personal redemption. His lie is the mechanism by which people in the town learn to value true forgiveness.
The film is intentionally unsettling about faith and religious identity. It shows a deceiving priest, effectively exposing the hypocrisy of piously-behaving people. The film itself is not a sharp satire on Polish Catholicism, as it might have been, but it is one that compassionately espouses Christian retribution and redemption. It emphases how religious fervour can at times be permitted to justify unchristian behaviour, and it conveys a powerful message to think and act otherwise.
Peter W. Sheehan
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