Corpus Christi Review
Updated: Sep 9, 2020
Salvation to be found elsewhere than Parasite in the Oscars’ Best International Feature Film category.
Whist exploring the weighty themes of redemption and absolution, Jan Komasa’s
“oh-so-Polish” of parables, Corpus Christi (2019), skilfully sidesteps usual trappings of predictability and catharsis.
With consistently stylish cinematography, haunting performances, and simple yet effective visual and narrative imagery, Corpus Christi is one that is sure to fester long in the mind of its viewers.
When juvenile delinquent, Daniel, is released from a retention centre steeped in violence, he senses an opportunity for a fresh start and a new path. Determined to take his vows and become a priest, Daniel skips out on his parole work obligations, instead venturing into a sleepy, rural, Polish town (a far cry from his past surroundings), to worship and lay down new roots.
Prematurely presenting himself as a clergyman, Daniel, (under the new guise of “Father Tomasz”) finds himself in too deep, mere hours from release. And when a senior priest in need of rehab is forced to leave the parish, Daniel is thrust into ill-fitting robes; robes he is determined to make his own, becoming a spiritual guide to the people of a broken town in need of re-unification.
Discovering the community he has inherited is deeply fractured, a naïve Daniel soon finds he may have bitten off more than he can chew. An all too recent car crash, claiming the lives of some of the town’s young people, has left a mourning populace divided.
Led by the self-righteous, Lidia, (expertly portrayed by Aleksandra Konieczna) a veritable witch hunt has ensued, with blame for the crash laid firmly at the door of one of the drivers, and his grieving widow. Keeping his true identity hidden, Daniel must seek to reforge bonds between the shattered community, and raise a fallen people back up from its knees.
Discovering his duties and approach on the fly, Daniel fuses old and new, combining an in-depth knowledge of canonical teaching, with a youthful and stylistic flair. Through his sermons and pastoral attentions, Father Tomasz, (Daniel) rejuvenates an ageing town of pious parishioners, reconnecting them with a disenchanted teen subculture in need of guidance.
Daniel however, is no traditional priest, and his approach is by no means textbook. Seemingly just as at home fine tuning his motorbike while listening to EDM, as he is bowing down before the crucifix, this is a new age priest, complete with ample substance abuse and fist fights.
Indeed, it is in convincingly expressing these apparent contradictions, that actor, Bartosz Bielenia becomes an invaluable cog. Bielenia is eminently watchable, with soft blue eyes, inside a haunting gaze, at once both angelic yet vampiric. To the end, it is unclear whether Daniel should be viewed as fallen angel, or rising devil. Bielenia is an undoubted highlight, cleverly used by director, Komasa, with an exciting career ahead of him. Komasa’s decision to have Bielenia perform Daniel’s final sermon straight down the barrel of the camera, eliciting a more engrossing response from viewers, is just one example of the director effectively utilizing the unbounded potential of his lead performer to captivate viewers.
Corpus Christi is laden with rich imagery, both visual and narrative. Embroidered curtains dotted around the numerous properties of Daniel’s newly adopted town, share undoubted parallels with the slats inside the confession booth in which he plies his new trade. Indeed, Daniel’s leading of confession (humorously learnt via his smartphone using, ‘A Guide for Confession’ article) serves a masterful duality, as in reality it is he who shelters the greatest deceit.
Likewise, there is rich thematic symbolism present in the script. Having already found himself in too deep, and dragged into the church vestry to change out of his ‘civilian clothes’, Daniel finds his escape route out of the window locked. The futility of escape here sharing clear reference to Daniel’s prior incarceration, as the consequences of his decisions continue to spiral out of control.
Corpus Christi occupies space in the lies we tell ourselves; the personal narratives and implicit deceptions, great and small, that we engage in. As a film it can never be accused of holding its punches. Instead it allows all core creatives to flex their wings, with countless thrilling cinematic set pieces coming to a glorious head with its exhilarating finale.
Corpus Christi ignores any temptation to play to expectation, and with modern consensus being that the biblical figure of “Daniel” never truly existed, it is left ambiguous whether our violent delinquent, known as Daniel, ever truly existed, or whether he was truly the religious spearhead, “Father Tomasz” all along.