“You know what we’re good at? Giving up on people”
Jan Komasa’s Corpus Christi (Polish: Boże Ciało) managed to outgrow the Polish borders in 2019, receiving many prestigious awards worldwide, including a nomination for the 92nd Academy Awards for Best International Feature Film.
Young Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) undergoes a deep spiritual transformation during his time in a juvenile detention center under the guidance of Father Tomasz (Łukasz Simlat). His burning wish to become a priest is unexpectedly granted when he is sent to work at the sawmill of a rural village. In a twist of fate, Daniel manages to convince the locals that he is the new priest, taking up his duties in the local parish, which is plunged in hatred and anger after a recent tragic car accident. His words of wisdom and genuine charisma begin to purge the sins of the villagers, but the past soon catches up with him, forcing the young impostor to face his own demons, too.
Delving into the universal concepts of forgiveness, transformation, true faith and hypocrisy, this drama breaks free from the limiting spatial setting of a small south-eastern Polish community, where deep religiousness and modernity clash, leaving the people barren and scarred. The film aims to decode human behaviour and the nature of relationships, utilizing a creative approach that manages not to preach, but to mesmerize with its raw performances.
Grounded in the idea that being a man of God and being a man of the cloth are not always one and the same, Komasa elaborates on dogmatic religious piousness and the organic instincts of faith. The film poses questions on the human ability to transform, forgive and accept one another by demolishing the emotional and social barriers perpetuated by the Church and the weaknesses of the believers themselves. Set within the rigid environment of a rural Polish village that exudes close-mindedness and distrust, the plot creates tension – one that stresses how the past can annihilate the present.
A further element permeating the script is power and how it can be used or abused. The young priest uses his words and sermons to escape danger and help his fellow people, abstaining from taking advantage of his privileged position, unlike the local mayor (Leszek Lichota), who strives to preserve the current status quo with its grieving victims and unredeemed perpetrators.
The script works successfully on two levels, without losing track of its end goal, to cauterize society’s inability to offer second chances. The young protagonist, with his piercing gaze and a shaved head, is thrown into the lion’s den twice, just like the biblical prophet, whose name signifies that God is his judge. On a primary level, the film sustains the palpitating fear that Daniel’s secret will be exposed. Meanwhile, the gradual reveal of the truth behind the deadly car accident, which had many locals succumb to anger and hate, creates further suspense without resorting to forced solutions and needless plot twists.
The stark difference between the grayness of the detention center and the lush landscape clinches Bielenia’s change of attitude – even his facial expressions. The light, or lack thereof, amplifies the notion that the young priest – and, by extension, any mortal – can be either a saint or a murderer, depending on where he is. The chants echoing in the center and the church fade as electronic beats reverberate, revealing the multifaceted personality of a young man experiencing a difficult youth.
Bielenia is deservedly praised for his compelling performance, but it should be noted that the entire cast’s devotion is spectacular. And in the spirit of this fervor, the ending of the film allows itself to be scraped and scratched, avoiding certain clichés and overturning expectations. Corpus Christi isn’t about God, but Man, and the effort we go all to in order to keep balancing between the light and the dark of our existence.
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