Starring Bartosz Bielenia. In Polish, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable
What, exactly, is the Body of Christ? Is it a metaphorical concept representing the physical presence of God on earth or, more carnally, the symbolic essence of human suffering? Has it come to stand in for a kind of innocence sullied by Catholicism’s own sins? Such questions are asked, subtly and without much resolution, of course, in Corpus Christi, a beautifully crafted Polish film that has garnered an Academy Award nomination and many prizes at international festivals.
Directed by Jan Komasa and written by frequent collaborator Mateusz Pacewicz, the story begins in a most ungodly place: a Polish juvenile-detention centre. It’s packed with skinny, shaven-headed youngsters and run by priests, so the place does have a monastic feel at times. That’s particularly true when the camera rests on Bartosz Bielenia as Daniel, a haunted-looking 20-year-old who comes to life when Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat) leads the lads in prayer.
Daniel displays a beautiful singing voice for hymns of redemption. Indeed, he’s interested in joining a seminary. But on release, he’s told his record won’t allow it, and is packed off to a sawmill in a remote area near the Slovakian border. One look at the place, staffed by violent toughs who look just like him, and Daniel walks off, towards a distant church. This place has only one worshipper, the worldly Eliza (impressive Eliza Rycembel), understandably skeptical of his insistence that he’s a newly ordained priest.
His impulsive gesture sets off events that find our blue-eyed interloper not only subbing for the troubled old-timer who normally runs the place, but attracting a younger, more engaged crowd in the process. He’s a natural performer, and what starts as a lark becomes more serious when he sees that the town is riven by a terrible accident that occurred years earlier, with factions still angry at each other.
There are also signs of corruption and cover-up. But this is no routine melodrama, and the narrative conflicts allow these young filmmakers to explore the many guises people wear, and what role religion can have in community life—especially in a place, like ex–Iron Curtain Poland, where the church had been associated with both repression and resistance to it.
This may sound like heavy going, but Corpus Christi is surprisingly entertaining, sometimes funny fare, with a soft colour palette, smart dialogue, and enough graceful repose to provoke deeper thought. Here, you won’t have to suffer for your cinema.