(director/writer: Jan Komasa; screenwriter: Mateusz Pacewicz; cinematographer: Piotr Sobocinski Jr.; editor: Przemyslaw Chruscielewski; music: Galperin Brothers; cast: Bartosz Bielenia (Daniel), Eliza Rycembel (Eliza), Aleksandra Konieczna (Lidia), Tomasz Zietek (‘Pinczer’ ), Leszek Lichota (Walkiewicz – the mayor ), Lukasz Simlat (Father Thomasz), Zdislaw Wardejn (Priest), Barbara Kurzaj (Ewa Kobielski – the widow), Mateusz Czwartosz (Bonus); Runtime: 111; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Aneta Hickinbotham, Leszek Bodzak; Film Movement; 2019-Poland-in Polish with English subtitles)
“Unsettling drama about faith and identity fraud over an ex-con youth posing as a small town priest.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Corpus Christi was Poland’s entry for the 2020 Best Foreign Language Oscar.
Polish director Jan Komasa (“Suicide Room”/”Warsaw ’44”) helms this smart but unsettling drama about faith and identity fraud over an ex-con youth posing as a small town priest. The director’s regular collaborator Mateusz Pacewicz is the screenwriter, who claims the story was inspired by real events.
The 20-year-old Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia), whose crime of killing a man is not revealed until late in the film, is released on parole from a Warsaw juvenile detention center. He’s also released just before someone (Mateusz Czwartosz) who hates him and wants to harm him is placed in the prison.
In prison Daniel found religion. He beautifully sings the hymns and assists the chaplain, Father Tomasz (Łukasz Simlat), during the services. Daniel tells the priest he also wants to be a priest, but he’s told because of his prison record no seminary would accept him. Before leaving the joint, Daniel swipes the priest’s outfit and heads to a remote small town where a dead-end carpenter’s assistant job in a sawmill awaits him (catchy Jesus reference!).
While in the town church, Daniel meets Eliza (Eliza Rycembel) and tells her he’s a priest. She brings him to her mom, the parish sexton, Lidia (Aleksandra Konieczna). Daniel tells Lidia he’s Father Tomasz. She then takes him to meet the old and unwell priest (Zdislaw Wardejn), who wants a replacement immediately so he can go into rehab. So Daniel gets the priest job immediately without any reference check, since the church is desperate for a replacement priest. Daniel then gets busy to prepare for the job, and learns on the fly how to perform his priestly duties.
Daniel’s other problems, besides learning how to fake being a priest, is dealing with the following issues: talking unethical business matters over with the mayor (Leszek Lichota), who also owns the sawmill and who becomes annoyed that the young priest is so moral; keeping his relationship platonic with the romantically inclined teenager Eliza; and, of being outed by a fellow jailbird (Tomasz Ziętek), from the same prison and in town, who bribes him for his silence.
The new charismatic priest tries to win over his congregation by his unorthodox confessionals, which are received by them as a breath of fresh air.
Daniel is a nonconformist, a natural for spiritual work, who challenges the church’s conservatism and thereby brings unwanted attention to himself.
The filmmaker takes his shots at organized religion in this mostly humorless and glum story about a sinner seeking redemption, one who has the need to be Christlike in changing the world for the better; that is, until his past catches up with him.
Though the story flags with a downbeat ending and a few unneeded subplots, the spirited performance by Bartosz Bielenia is uplifting and makes us look again at what redemption and forgiveness mean. It also asks us what to think Christ would have done if in Daniel’s shoes.
REVIEWED ON 7/6/2020 GRADE: B