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Corpus Christie

Peter W Sheehan  |  25 October 2020

CORPUS CHRISTI (Boze Cialo). Starring: Bartosz Bielenia, Alexsandra Konieczna, Eliza Rycembel, Lukasz Simlat, and Zdzislaw Wardejn. Also, Tomasz Zietek, Leszek Lichota, and Barbara Kurzaj. Directed by Jan Komasa. Rated MA15+. Restricted (Strong violence, sex scenes and coarse language). 115 min.

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 is an Associate of Jesuit Media
Palace Films
Released 22 October 2020



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