Can all sins be forgiven? What constitutes redemption? How much mercy does God expect us to show one another in this fallen world? The director Jan Komasa considers these questions with admirable rigor in Poland’s deeply felt Catholic drama Corpus Christi, a deserved Oscar nominee this winter for Best International Film that has just begun its real release in theaters (following an Oscar-qualifying limited run).
Daniel (mesmerizingly performed by Bartosz Bielenia) is a young reform-school inmate of college age who is guilty of unspecified misdeeds. He seems very much a part of his harsh environment, in which young men treat each other savagely. And yet his haunted, yearning gaze tells us that he is capable of much more. He wishes to go to seminary with an eye toward leading a flock, but is told that his criminal record makes this impossible. After being transferred across the country unsupervised to report for a job in a sawmill as an assigned part of his rehabilitation, he slips away from his fate on a whim: Praying in a church, he tells a young woman (Eliza Rycembel) that he is a priest. Wearing the collar, he discovers that others treat him completely differently, and he changes his personality to match. Thanks to the indisposition of the aging, alcoholic local rector, he is pressed into a leadership role quickly. It’s a small town, and as no one suspects his ruse, he finds himself comically in over his head. He doesn’t even know how to celebrate Mass properly. When hearing confession, he brings a mobile phone into the booth with him to remind him what he’s supposed to say.
The film is, on its surface, a smoothly orchestrated work of suspense — will Daniel be caught, and what steps might he take to avoid that? — but underneath that, it’s an open-ended parable. As Daniel takes over the parish, he not only proves an able priest but also revitalizes the town. He seems touched with grace, maybe even charisma. Either that, or he’s just a con man having a good time.
The way Daniel celebrates Mass suggests an ecstatic spiritual liberation that will be familiar to many who have found faith. But it’s not just an internal transformation. His exuberance and unconventionality prove so attractive to the town’s youths — at one point he ecstatically tosses baptismal water on himself in an act of showmanship — that the church’s pews begin to fill up. So does the rectory, with gifts from grateful parishioners that signify a kind of bounty that has seemingly attached itself to him. Teens and other young people note with amusement that he is one of them. He dresses like them, talks like them, has a drink and a smoke with them, and even dances like he’s at a rave and rides a motorcycle. This alleged menace to society seems much more like he was sent from heaven to rebuild one small community’s faith in the Church.
Yet there is a rift running through the town. As Daniel learns more about it, he decides it will mean taking sides in a toxic dispute that predated his arrival there. A strain of concealed hatred separates one part of the community from another, and has proved such a potent political force that it has manifested in a painfully dismal way that has prevented the remains of a middle-aged man from being buried. His soul is presumably barred from rest. Other complications keep presenting themselves to Daniel as well. There is an erotic charge between him and the young woman he met when he first arrived in town, who is, like many others there, in a state of grief. The steps he takes to heal the town could result in his unmasking, or worse.
Mateusz Pacewicz’s script is beautifully balanced on the question of how much sympathy we should have for Daniel, especially once we find out more about how he wound up in juvie in the first place. Daniel is such a canny fellow that not only can’t we be certain he isn’t fooling the townsfolk, we also don’t know whether he’s fooling us. Who is he really — a shepherd for wayward souls or a vicious thug? It would be facile to suggest he is whatever circumstances conspire to make of him, but I don’t think Corpus Christi is about that. It is, rather, the story of a beautiful realization of the complexities that lie within any man’s soul, and of how a loving Church can at least provide guidance for even the most wayward sinners.