Corpus Christi: Keeping the Faith

in 31st Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Pamela Biénzobas

Who holds the monopoly of devotion? Who can act best as a bridge between the humble faithful and their god? These abstract questions find very concrete, established, regulated forms when they are raised within the boundaries of organised religions, namely the Roman Catholic Church. Especially, it seems, in Poland.

The weight of the institution in Polish society is certainly a fertile source of inspiration, with cinema regularly turning towards Catholicism to expose the buried secrets, the contradictions, the hypocrisy, the social fractures and other troubles of Wojtyla’s home country. A remarkable example is Jan Komasa’s Corpus Christi (Boże Ciało), which after premiering in Venice’s Giornate degli Autori became Poland’s submission for the Oscars’ International Feature Film award, eventually making it to the final list of five nominees.

The plot of Komasa’s third feature fiction, after Suicide Room (Sala samobójców, 2011), and Warsaw 44 (Miasto 44, 2014), may seem like an original though far-fetched fantasy born from screenwriter Mateusz Pacewicz’s mind –at least for those of us unfamiliar with the full extent of Catholic eccentricity. Yet the filmmakers actually drew inspiration from real events for their story of a young impostor priest revitalising a small-town parish. The logline anecdote, powerful as it may be, is just the foundation for the film’s true soul: its protagonist Daniel. And if that soul inhabits a body that makes the film’s heart beat, even pound, it is undoubtedly due to Bartosz Bielenia’s formidable performance.

The strength of Jan Komasa’s storytelling relies on a mostly restrained and classic mise-en-scène and directing style, leaving room for Bielenia to incarnate the sensuality, the insanity, the vulnerability, the passion, the rage, and the recklessness of Daniel. And also his charisma, his street-wise survival instinct, his earnest will to believe… not in a fluent evolution, but all at the same time. It is the embodiment of all these contradictions that drives the story and the film. Bielenia mesmerises the camera just as his intense character mesmerises those around him.

Daniel is a young offender, far from “reformed”, yet fascinated by the faith, or perhaps especially by the Catholic service rituals that he discovers in the juvenile detention centre, to the point of ardently desiring to become a priest –a dream that his criminal record shreds to pieces. When on his way, or actually on a detour on his way to a mill where he is sent to a reentry job, he ends up in a small town where on a provocation that leads to a misunderstanding he suddenly finds himself celebrating masses, baptisms and confessions, and, often believing his own imposture, getting sincerely and even intrusively involved in the community’s griefs, secrets and divisions.

His extreme rage and –as we later learn– guilt lead him to such a raw, brutal mysticism and connection with what seems to be the divine, that the film seems to permanently question who the impostor really is when it comes to something so intangible. It does so by pushing situations to the limit, and then, before they explode and expose Daniel’s lie, adjusting them to a supposed normality, showing how relative the notion of deception is, and how it is mainly possible thanks to our desire to believe.

Corpus Christi draws its power to a great extent from Bartosz Bielenia’s compelling presence arresting talent, offering the now multi-awarded actor his international breakthrough in return.

Pamela Biénzobas