Poland’s official submission to the 92nd Academy Awards is the powerfully intense “Corpus Christi” written by Mateusz Pacewica and directed by Jan Komasa. The story wrestles with the reality of one man’s life and its intersection with the Catholic Church. The parallel lines the film draws between Jesus and Daniel are unmistakable, no matter how darkly masked and steeped in the harsh setting of today’s world the story becomes. It’s a disturbingly beautiful portrayal of denial, compassion, forgiveness, and love set in an unlikely place by an equally unlikely character.
Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) is at a juvenile detention center with some of the most barbaric young men imaginable. During the attendance of a required mass, Daniel has an epiphany; a transformation which sets into motion a dire need to change his life’s direction. He feels he is called to become a priest. Unfortunately, and quite ironically, the young man is denied access and entrance to applying due to his past crimes. As he is released on parole, Daniel evades officers and becomes an impromptu stand-in for a small town’s parish priest.
This street-smart kid finds a new purpose in life as he is charged with doling out the responsibilities of a priest who needs assistance in this little town. Learning about the tragedy of a car accident killing six youth in a head on collision with a lone driver, the town is torn, angry, and resentful. It’s the perfect set up for Daniel to take advantage of and make a profit from, but the wheels are turning differently in his head now. Something has changed. We see him tempted by the cash from the offering plates as it calls his name, but there is a louder voice that now leads him; one that is from his heart or high above. Circumstances beckon him to not only perform the duties of a priest, but he follows his voice to help this town heal in very unorthodox ways.
At each and every turn, we are filled with turmoil, the tension building to insurmountable levels as this complicated and layered story unfolds. In our minds, we worry that he will be found out to be a fraud, nervous that he won’t know how to deliver someone’s last rites or that his past will catch up with him. But more than this, we want him to succeed and help this town forgive and learn to love again. Daniel has tapped into a part of himself he didn’t know he had, leading and teaching the townspeople, but more importantly, teaching himself. The road by which Daniel gets to this final point is a rough one filled with detours, but all a part of the necessary ending as it perfectly bookends the beginning.
Bielenia’s intensely captivating performance finds a rhythm and tone which creates an authentic and evocative character. His understanding of his character’s background and situation is evident in every word he utters and move he makes which in turn, allows us to know him as well. As Bielenia’s “Daniel” evolves, there’s a never fading shadow cast over him, allowing us to see that his mistakes will always be a part of him and perhaps he isn’t above making new ones. We see it in his huge, intensely expressive eyes, frequently darting from side to side as he awaits the next shoe to drop. Rarely do we see Daniel’s mind, body, and soul relax, but when he does, we mirror that feeling, letting down our guard for a moment and connecting more intensely to him. But we are mere helpless bystanders, unable to interfere as we predict his next move. He must make his own choices and pay for his past sins. Bielenia finds an unparalleled raw strength in a final pivotal scene, reminiscent of “First Reformed,” as his character’s world and all who are a part of it experience devastation, relief, and completion.
“Corpus Christi” powerfully sets up what is seemingly a simple story of a teen running from his fate, but quickly we see that it is so much more than that. Writer Pacewica masterfully lays the ground work with a succinct and captivating story and Komasa deftly directs not only Bielenia, but the entire cast to create more than just a story; it’s a hauntingly and impactful experience.