[…] The viewer leaves with the doubt whether he is really taking some kind of path towards redemption or simply enjoying fooling the whole community. Perhaps the real answer is both, but the director displays enough ambiguity to keep the viewers hooked, and rightfully so.
[…] One thing is certain; in his performance, Bielenia is helped by his extraordinary physique du rôle, which powerfully embodies the dichotomies of his character, whilst his consummate acting celebrates its complexity.
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Jan Komasa's Corpus Christi was world-premiered in the Venice Days strand and shown in the Contemporary World Cinema section at Toronto in 2019 as well as being selected as the Polish bid for the Best International Feature Film at the Academy Awards, making the final nomination. The reason behind the success of the piece is probably linked to its absorbing, morally debatable nature, and its release followed that of another Polish drama exploring similar themes, namely Wojciech Smarzowski's Clergy (2018), a box office hit that looked with critical eye at the lives of three priests and an archbishop.
In Komasa's film, we follow a boy called Daniel (played by talented Bartosz Bielenia), who experiences a sort of spiritual awakening while serving his sentence in jail. However, his troubled past impedes him pursuing his dream to become a priest. One day, Daniel is sent to work in a sawmill in a village. While visiting the local parish, he pretends to be a priest and meets the vicar, Father Wojciech (veteran Zdzisław Wardejn). His “new” identity comes in handy when the vicar goes to rehab (probably because of alcohol addiction) and Daniel ends up replacing him.
What makes Daniel's character immediately gripping is his two-sided nature, which is reflected in every aspect of his development and performance. We are in presence of a young man with a strong spirituality that enjoys fornication, binge drinking and taking drugs, whose angelic face has dead eyes, whose body is covered by wounds and tattoos, whose language mixes prayers, profanities and youth slang, whose methods are unorthodox and far from being the norm within the religious community, but led by a more or less genuine desire to pursue dignity and shake his bigot community. In particular, this last trait is the one that triggers the film's main conflict; Daniel finds out that a recent car accident caused a lot of trauma and distress in the village and it is still unclear whether the crash was actually a result of Fate. The community does not want to bury the driver's body in the local graveyard, some sending threatening letters to the widow, and the mayor (Leszek Lichota) repeatedly demands that the ex-convict «put things to bed». Nevertheless, the boy wishes to give the man a proper funeral – perhaps empathising with his position at the margins of society – and seems successful in convincing many inhabitants to put aside their hate, helped by a girl of his age, Marta Sosińska (Eliza Rycembel).
Throughout the film, the character played by Bielenia is driven by a personal (but frail) sense of justice and a twisted perception of Catholic faith, which does not impede him from, for example, openly expressing his disapproval of priestly celibacy while partying with some new acquaintances from the village and leaves the viewer with the doubt whether he is really taking some kind of path towards redemption or simply enjoying fooling the whole community. Perhaps the real answer is both, but the director displays enough ambiguity to keep the viewers hooked, and rightfully so. One thing is certain; in his performance, Bielenia is helped by his extraordinary physique du rôle, which powerfully embodies the dichotomies of his character, whilst his consummate acting celebrates its complexity.
Speaking of the film's cinematography and set design, the atmospheres and the environments are generally gloomy and claustrophobic but occasionally enriched with shades of green. This feature is particularly visible in the scenes shot in the church, when the boy speaks to the crowd and tries to gain their trust. This is surely not a casual choice; green traditionally evokes the concepts of hope and balance and, more importantly, is often worn by Daniel himself as a liturgical colour. Daniel's scam, however, is brought to a close by Father Tomasz (Łukasz Simlat), who is informed about the impostor and asks him to leave the village with him immediately. Next, the boy manages to sneak out of a window and decides to celebrate his farewell mass, which acts as a crucial moment of disclosure. Here, the adopted mise-en-scène effectively replaces more verbose solutions or pompous aesthetic choices. During a music crescendo that marks the beginning of the mass, Daniel simply removes his vestment and shirt, opens his arms wide, shows all his tattoos and leaves the church. The resolution that follows his dismissal is solid and compelling; it marks a new beginning for the character and does so by using a smart and original dynamic. Viewers will find it out.
Text: Davide Abbatescianni
First published: September 10, 2020
Corpus Christi – La communion | Film | Jan Komasa | PL 2019 | 116’ |