Stories about outsiders or imposters who come to a community, pretend to be priests and act as catalysts for change are always intriguing to us, which is why the idea is revisited so frequently in fairy tales, in literature, and in cinema. I think of Neil Jordon's so-so film 'We're No Angels', about two small-time cons hiding out as clergymen in a Canadian border town. And then there's Charles Laughton's masterful 'The Night of the Hunter', in which a self-declared itinerant preacher, who is also a con artist - and serial killer - runs afoul of some meddling kids and an old lady with a shotgun. Jan Komasa's 'Corpus Christi' is the latest film to feature a false cleric and distinguishes itself with the depth of its compassion.
First seen keeping watch while a gang of his fellow juvenile hall inmates slam an unlucky dude's testicles in a desk drawer, Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) is an angry 20-year-old serving time in Warsaw. He has made dangerous enemies in lockup, but he has also found hope. He is friendly with a passionate servant priest, Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat), who teaches Daniel how to deal with his rage and employs him as an acolyte at Mass. Father Tomasz arranges for Daniel's release, and Daniel begs for guidance about how an ex-convict might one day be able to go to seminary and receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. Father Tomasz insists such a path is closed.
In his disappointment, Daniel promptly goes on a techno, drug and sex binge before boarding a bus to a remote town, where the state secures "juvies" menial jobs at a sawmill. When he arrives, he makes straight for the local church instead. There, Daniel meets the wayward Eliza (Eliza Rycembel), whose mother, Lidia (Aleksandra Konieczna), is the tight-lipped parish secretary and housekeeper. Lidia's boss is the boozy pastor, a real priest, but something of a phony, too. He quickly disappears. Before young Daniel knows it, he has a collar on and is reading up on how to hear confessions and say Mass.
WATCH: 'CORPUS CHRISTI'
Daniel styles himself as "Father Tomasz" after his mentor, even stealing his sermon material. "I'm not here to pray mechanically," he says in his first homily, just as the real Father Tomasz had preached to Daniel and the other young inmates. He's a bit clunky at first, fumbling through a few rounds of confessions until he gets the hang of giving advice and resolution. His sermons and prayer sessions are direct, honest and vulnerable.
Daniel's rambunctious ministry is a hit, and he seems genuinely in his element; but he quickly discovers that the town where he is playing church is full of people with open emotional wounds. A two-car accident has killed six teenagers and the drunk driver at fault, the site marked by flowers, candles and a bulletin board covered in photographs. There's bitterness and blame abound. Not only is Daniel hiding his true identity, but many others are suppressing their Christian natures. It turns out that folks in these parts might need Daniel's outsider spark to draw out their best selves. With genuine good intentions, Daniel tries to reconcile the tensions between the survivors of the crash and the driver's widow; elsewhere, he clashes with the owner of the sawmill he's supposed to be working at when the owner starts sniffing around for the truth about Daniel's identity.
Bartosz Bielenia - a pale, slight man with glittery sapphire eyes and a working-class Polish crewcut - resembles an Eastern Bloc version of a young Christopher Walken. It's amazing how his face morphs from skull-like to angelic, old to young, his eyes from icy blue to vestment green, depending on the setting and how each scene is lit. The film invites the audience to embrace Daniel's new identity. Since the movie offers a look at Daniel's reckless and destructive sides, the altruistic turns, funny moments and warm connections with the locals in this nameless village (but actually filmed in picturesque Jasliska and Tabaszowa, Poland) will draw smiles. The transformation his character undergoes throughout the film feels organic, and when something threatens to interrupt this new life Daniel is leading, the film evokes an intense feeling of unease. Eliza (Eliza Rycembel) is a welcome sight in every scene as the priest's biggest ally and seemingly the only independent thinker in the village.
Far from being 'Sister Act' with extra headbutting, 'Corpus Christi' steps into 'Dead Poets Society' and 'Monsieur Lazhar' territory.
Far from being 'Sister Act' with some 'Ninja Scroll'-style headbutting, 'Corpus Christi' steps into 'Dead Poets Society' and 'Monsieur Lazhar' territory, and more so the latter film, where Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) is a newcomer to the profession of teaching but surprises himself with his positive influence. Daniel and Bachir feel a similar satisfaction with themselves and recognize equal measures of gratitude from their on-screen audiences. The film also explores trauma, human consequences and small-town life in way that recalls Atom Egoyan's 'The Sweet Hereafter'.
Director Jan Komasa and writer Mateusz Pacewicz's empathy is divvied out equally to each person in the village. Sometimes, tragedies just occur, and no one is to blame. People will act how they will act; there is only trauma and its endurance. The characters in 'Corpus Christi' are united by their weaknesses and their pain. Komasa creates a fascinating tapestry of psychological portraits, while Pacewicz critiques the treatment of disadvantaged youth and the generational divide in modern Poland - a country with plenty of modern troubles, yet still rooted more firmly in Catholicism than many people may realise.
'Corpus Christi' isn't just a movie about dreams and deceit, with sweeping beautiful images of the Polish countryside - it's a powerful story of salvation, sacrifice, damnation, retribution and redemption.