Corpus Christi (2019)
A violent juvenile prison is an unlikely place to find a messianic healer of failed faith and emotional despair. When one does emerge, dons a priest’s collar and heals a small Polish village, it raises broader questions about religious artifice, hypocrisy and the social relevance of the Catholic Church. This is what the Polish film Corpus Christi (2019) (Boze Cialo) is really about.
We meet 20 year-old Daniel near the end of his jail time, bearing the physical and psychological scars of being the prison pastor’s helper. Despite have a deep calling for the priesthood, he is told that no seminary will accept a convict. Sent off to work in a sawmill, he finds a small village and takes refuge in its church. When he tells a girl that he is a priest, the small passing lie quickly progresses into the full-blown impersonation of a priest. He soon takes on the role of village pastor while the real priest is away for alcoholism rehab.
The story’s centre of gravity is Daniel’s journey of caring for others with natural empathy and youthful flair. He calms the collective trauma of a village torn apart by a horrific multi-fatality car accident. While we are kept guessing if the deception will end, there is never a sign of an imposter’s pretence. Instead, Daniel radiates faith from his crystalline blue eyes that stand out from the dour colour palette of a beautifully filmed rural Poland.
The narrative is linear and slow-moving but rich in binary metaphors about the Catholic Church. Pious emphasis on ceremony looks shallow when an imposter like Daniel can administer holy sacraments learnt in prison and a little help from Google. The gospel of forgiveness appears hypocritical when Daniel is flatly refused training in the priesthood because of his sins. The ‘real’ village priest tended his flock with the Catholic tools of guilt and punishment, while Daniel’s unconditional love of humanity is so visceral it jumps off the screen. And despite everything he gives to others, a Judas will betray him.
Like all good films, Corpus Christi can be read at many levels. It works as a thriller, keeping viewers wondering if Daniel will be uncovered. It has dramatic strands of deceit, violence, sadness, love and faith, and can also be viewed through a coming-of age-lens. But if the film has a higher purpose, it is the way it poses existential questions about an ancient church in modern times.
Director: Jan Komasa
Stars: Bartosz Bielenia, Aleksandra Konieczna, Eliza Rycembel