A handsome youth is released from juvenile detention on parole, then skips his appointed work in a small-town sawmill by pretending to be a priest. While it sounds like a sitcom premise, this Polish drama, directed by Jan Komasa, is a meditative treatise on forgiveness, truth and what it means to believe in God. Sometimes funny, but serious in its inquiries, it’s a riveting, emotional gut-punch ― whatever your beliefs.
Daniel’s (Bartosz Bielenia) faith is established early on, as he carefully sets up items for Father Tomasz’s (Lukasz Simlat) sermon to the inmates. He nods with conviction when Father Tomasz tells the boys that they are all priests of Christ, and radiates pride when chosen to lead the hymns. The other inmates don’t like him, laughing at his devotion to the sermon and cheering when he’s attacked by another inmate. In the golden light of his cell, Daniel holds his rosary and whispers Hail Marys, the first of many scenes where he appears to be lit up by his faith.
Despite the strength of Daniel’s devotion, he cannot enter a seminary due to his criminal record, and is instead destined to travel to a distant village and start work at a sawmill, like his other inmates. Upon his release, Daniel celebrates with drugs and casual sex, but editor Przemyslaw Chruscielewski gives us only brief glimpses, establishing facts rather than revelling in excess. Daniel’s behaviour is not positioned as the relapse of a pious man, or the true colours of a faker, but rather as something that runs alongside his faith. It’s the beginning of Corpus Christi’s dedication to exploring the messy truths of what it means to be a believer, and eschewing moralism in favour of clear-eyed empathy.
Arriving in the village, Daniel visits the sawmill, but its grey misery is too similar to prison. Instead, he heads to the church and sits with devotion in the soft light. When pretty local Eliza (Eliza Rycembel) asks why he’s arrived in town, he says that he’s a priest ― as though daring himself, or remembering Father Tomasz’s words about everyone being a priest of Christ. But he is taken seriously by the girl and her mother Lidia (Aleksandra Konieczna), the church matron, and when he realises there’s no escaping the situation, he suits up and commits to the bit. Before he can swiftly depart, the town vicar asks Daniel to fill in for him temporarily while he discretely disappears to rehab. Suddenly, he has willed into existence the fact of his priesthood.
Genuine faith underlies Daniel’s deception, and although he has to Google what to say during confession, he’s deeply perceptive about what people need. Before his first Mass, he frantically reads the Bible in a sequence scored by stressed, screechy strings that call to mind the sawmill he’s trying to evade. At Mass, the camera slowly zooms in on him as he scrambles for words, repeating Father Tomasz’s sermon with little success ― village congregants being a rather different audience than bored juvenile offenders ― until he turns to the figure of Jesus for desperate guidance. Speaking from the heart, he finds a way with words that heals and inspires the parishioners, including a group in mourning for the six young victims of a recent car crash. When Daniel gets involved with the mourners and tries to investigate what happened to the driver of the other car, the consequences threaten to bring down the perfect façade that he’s constructed.
Bartosz Bielenia is blessed (sorry) with enormous, deep blue eyes that shine out of his face, and in the many scenes where Daniel says nothing, these eyes seem to drill his pain, fear or devotion directly into the audience. For Daniel is devoted, and maintains Father Tomasz’s belief that God follows you everywhere, meaning he’s equally with God when he gives a sermon and when he’s dancing in his backyard to rave music and smoking. While there are surely some who would balk at this depiction of faith ― especially Daniel’s defense of smoking a joint on the grounds that it is “nature from God” ― the film never mocks the faithful. While some of the intricate rituals of Catholicism are played for laughs, the core concept of belief in a higher power is not.
Corpus Christi asks you to believe that no matter how his behaviour sits with your own morals, Daniel’s faith is true. Beyond the sex and drugs, Daniel’s success as a priest is unavoidably built on a foundation of lies ― and then there’s the crime he committed that landed him in juvie. As a priest, Daniel is determined to speak the truth, whether about the Mayor’s greed or the circumstances surrounding the car crash. But underlying this is his contradictory need to hide the truth about himself. Komasa doesn’t condemn or excuse Daniel, making the audience grapple with their own principles with every decision the protagonist makes. It both enriches the film and ensures it will trouble you long after viewing.
Later in the film, Daniel gives a thundering sermon about forgiveness and love, in one of many visually striking church scenes bathed in misty golden light. In a lesser film, this would be the Big Moment signifying his redemption, the turning-point for his character. But this is not a bare-bones film about sin and redemption; it’s tough and gristly, especially the finale. There are no miracles. There is no simple truth. In Komasa’s staggering work, there is only faith, which discomforts as well as soothes.
Corpus Christi screened as part of the 2020 Melbourne International Film Festival and is now showing in Australian cinemas from 22 October 2020.
Zoë Almeida Goodall is a film critic, editor and researcher based in Melbourne.