Corpus Christi (2019) binds together a character study of an ex-con-turned-priest and a saddening tale about the narrow-minding influence of Church on townsmen.
As a Pole myself, I was afraid to watch Corpus Christi (2019).
Whenever a Polish film touches a delicate matter – like religion – it stirs the pot. Like Clergy (2018) did. It attracted over four million viewers in Poland, and secured several foreign headlines too. Director Wojciech Smarzowski reveled the lies within the institution of church, and how far the rot has gon through the tissue of this tight-knit community.
A film like Corpus Christi (2019) puts the cat between the pigeons
Things haven’t changed much since Clergy (2018), and is still Poland is divided politically. Jan Komasa’s film is a piece of art, but also a reflection hatred that fueled much of the current government’s propaganda.
Corpus Christi (2019) is based on facts. Right after the dark screen fades, the first earthquake arrives: a band of convicts, working in a sawmill, grab a guy and terrorizes him by taking his pants down and putting his private parts against the saw. That’s when Jan Komasa introduces us to Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) – the story’s protagonist – as a guy on the lookout.
Daniel isn’t like the rest of the people in his surroundings – particularly the brutes he lives with in jail. For reasons, which remain murky even after the credits roll at the end, he wants to become a priest. Whether it’s just his way of escaping the fate he faces – or maybe it’s a deeper manifesto of true faith – such a conclusion never arrives.
Despite that, we know this one thing – he is different.
As a result of a hack of his own making, Daniel lands a unique chance to fill in the shoes of a vicar, somewhere deep in the rural area of Poland. The locals aren’t fond of him at first, but the vigorous priest gains their trust through hard and genuine work, as he tries to put an end to a local feud that draws from a tragic event from the past. However, the old ghosts don’t die, and soon, Daniel is haunted by his own monsters.
Jan Komasa, who up until now wasn’t too much of a social commentator (his previous film was a big-budget history lesson about the Warsaw Uprising), boldly marches right into the fire.
Daniel puts on the minister’s choker and albeit he has no right to do so, the young man preaches the word of God to the local community. In Poland, where the currently-ruling, right-wing party utilizes churches as their brainwashing facilities, the word of a priest spreads and fortifies political beliefs with a dashing speed.
That’s why Daniel’s provocative sermons and general attitude raises eyebrows. Although he’s the new kid on the block, Daniel puts himself in the middle of a heated conflict, and does his best to bring people together. However, it’s the last that the local authorities want – a stranger agitator wearing a priest’s robe.
It’s a multi-level conflict here – one referring to the societal landscape, and the other being an internal squabble of the protagonist.
For some viewers, this is where Corpus Christi (2019) earns its victory. In a right-wing, Catholic country, Komasa doesn’t condemn the man who commits a heavy sin of this treachery. In fact, he’s fascinated by this courageous dream. However, as the story meanders, Daniel’s arch begins to reveal a lack of a strong, believable setting for his plan. Pacewicz rushes to put Daniel outside the bars, but that’s what cuts the much-needed distinction between Daniel-in and Daniel-out.
As a consequence, the transformation of the protagonist feels incomplete, and his genuine dream of becoming a minister – slightly unreal. You’ll be left wondering – is it another one of his cons? Or maybe a smart way to put himself out of the pathological surrounding he’s been thrown into?
On the one hand, such ambiguity could potentially benefit Corpus Christi (2019).
And it actually does.
At least to some degree, because it leaves the audience in a state of constant questioning. Daniel is no white knight of faith, but neither is he a rotten piece of garbage. So who is he? There’s light and darkness, but two sides that constantly grinding against each other. This conflicted centerpiece reminds of First Reformed (2017), and how Ethan Hawke’s role was that type of grass-on-wind, leaning towards various directions according to the circumstances. However, in the case of Corpus Christi (2019), there’s so much negativity around, that I wish I could put my faith in Daniel.
Bartosz Bielenia steals the show
Disregarding the way that his character evolves story-wise, Bartosz Bielenia is absolutely blissful as Daniel. As he anchors most of Corpus Christi (2019) safe to shore, there’s no scene where the young actor feels false. Could be an inspired speaker, a criminal or a rebel – Bielenia’s energy keeps it all in order.
Furthermore, he lives in a hectic space, where there’s hardly anyone whom we – as viewers – can trust. And he fits that surrounding, but in order to do some good. Komasa constructs a world of hostility, people choking on repressed emotions, and hatred that’s manipulated by those yielding power. And that rings a similarity to Smarzowski’s perception- this peculiar kind of hopelessness that’s going strong in modern Polish cinema.
Corpus Christi (2019) successfully explores the rural town’s issues
Where Komasa’s Corpus Christi (2019) succeeds fully is a curious, sympathizing vivisection of a small town’s politics.
The director has much more subtlety than some of his fellow Polish filmmakers (like Patryk Vega, famous for his in-your-face, shallow provocations), in the way he makes the surgical cuts and lets the wounds “do the talking“. Without the need to mock, Komasa portrays how people let tiny things slide as a trade-off for which they get a simple (if skewed from the truth) life in return. When Daniel wedges into the whole scheme, it’s the disturbance that he causes that results in a traumatizing earthquake for the entire town.
By the end of Corpus Christi (2019), I somehow felt appalled and tired from all the exhausting tension that the film echoes with. There’s brutal honesty to it all, and some part of me wishes this whole narrow-mindedness was just someone’s imagination. I’ll be honest – I’m still conflicted whether this film bogs down the country’s cinema in the area of self-pitying and small town-ism, or it actually stirs the discussions about the need for positive changes. Whichever it brings, I know that Corpus Christi (2019) isn’t anything that I’d like to experience again.
Corpus Christi (2019) – Culturally Hated or Loved?
Despite its directorial issues and some rough patches in terms of the story, this is a finely crafted drama which reverberates as a political statement and a look at the issues troubling smaller communities in Poland.
Corpus Christi (2019)
Dir. Jan Komasa
Hate Grade: 3/10
Corpus Christi (2019) is now an Oscar nominee – see who was snubbed by the Academy in 2020.