Movie Review: Corpus Christi (Boże Ciało)
Just around this time with the Oscars drawing closer, you would’ve thought my interest in the foreign films would be finished, right? When I saw Polish film Corpus Christi was playing, it caught my intrigue with the story. I thought it was worth seeing.
The film begins in a juvenile prison. Prisoners are prone to the same harsh actions, beatings and retaliations of other prisoners. 20 year-old Daniel knows he could be one. He killed someone when he was a teenager and was sentenced to juvenile prison, or ‘juvie’ as it’s commonly called, for manslaughter. Daniel has found a personal escape in religion. A priest, Father Tomasz, performs mass at the prison every Sunday. Daniel is the most willing participant as he even sings Psalm 23 for the mass. Every night he prays the rosary. Parole is nearing for him, which is a relief as one of his fellow prisoners named ‘Pinczer’ is threatening him. He wants to become a priest, but Father Tomasz says he can’t because of his criminal past. They’re not allowed in the seminary. As soon as Daniel achieves parole, it’s obvious he’s not ready for the priesthood as he happily does drugs and has sex at parties. He does however own a priest’s shirt.
For his parole, Daniel has to do sawmill work at a mill in a small Polish town specifically for parolees. He notices a church and introduces himself as ‘Father Tomasz’ to a young girl praying named Eliza and introduces himself as ‘Father Tomasz.’ He’s then introduced to her mother Lidia, the church secretary, and the ailing priest. Daniel is given the job to perform priestly duties. Daniel’s first mass goes excellently, and people believe him to be the temporary priest. Daniel soon notices as he walks around town people praying to a memorial to six young people. They died in a car accident which the driver hit them head-on. The image of the driver, who also died, is not on the memorial.
Over time, Daniel becomes more involved in the community with each mass he serves. He even wins the liking of the town mayor. Daniel even takes the opportunity to help those that constantly pray by the memorial to help overcome their feelings. Eliza and Lidia are among those as Jakub, Lidia’s son and Eliza’s brother, was one of the fatalities. He also notices how some people shout ‘the whore’ when dealing with their grief. He finds out people have been directing their anger to the driver’s widow. When meeting with the widow, he learns that people have been sending her hate-mail.
Daniel tries to think of a solution, but he later learns Pinczer, one of his rivals from prison who was called ‘Bonus,’ knows he’s posing as a priest. He demands 5000 Euros or else he will expose the truth of ‘Father Tomasz.’ Daniel tries to continue on as a priest and even works at making the town confront their unnecessary anger to the widow by showing them all the hate-mail they sent her. Soon her husband is given a proper burial and is attended by all: even those that lost a child in the accident. However it soon becomes apparent that Daniel’s secret will be exposed. It does happen and the aftermath becomes a case where you can watch and draw your own conclusions about the town, Eliza and Daniel.
One thing that caught my attention is that this film is based on true events. It may not be a true story, but it is of a collection of true events. Director Jan Komasa made mention in a Los Angeles Times interview that he has taken notice that there are several unordained men who have posed as priests. Many of those men believe they are doing priestly duties for the right reasons. The issue of fake priests is one that the clergy in Poland know of, but they sweep the issue under the rug. Scriptwriter Mateusz Pacewicz said in the same interview that he became very fixated about the idea of these fake priests and their spiritual passion. He even wrote a short story of it and that would lead him to write the screenplay for this film.
This is a film that will cause a lot of people with strong Catholic values to think a lot about. Some may even be outraged of a positive depiction of a fake priest. What we have here is a young man who found himself in God possibly through prison ministry. Daniel has this problem with him as he’s a killer and he’s reminded his past crimes will not allow him into the seminary. However he sees the town where he is to do his parole duties as his chance to be a priest. We should remember during his short time as a priest, he didn’t do anything to hurt the citizens of the town. He didn’t rob from the people, he didn’t disturb any masses. Instead he became a symbol of help and hope. He helped the townspeople overcome the losses they were enduring. He got the people to stop with their unnecessary hostilities towards the widow of the killer. He even helped the widow get back to being accepted rather than be the subject of a town’s wrath.
The film allows to both question and even make your own judgments about what happens in the story. First off it makes you wonder if Daniel posed as a priest because he feels he was meant to be one or to avoid an act of vengeance from the other parolees at the sawmill. It’s not made obvious but one can even sense in the film that Eliza always knew Daniel was not ‘Father Tomasz.’ I sensed that in the scene where Daniel was asked for his priest card and she says it’s in the laundry she was working with. Even that sex scene between Eliza and Daniel suggests that; an ordained priest would not have sex or else we would be forced to resign. However Eliza knew Daniel was the right man to bring peace to the town. Eliza also wanted healing along with the people of the town, including hard-hearted Lidia. Eliza felt she knew Tomasz could bring healing and was the only other person who felt making peace with the killer’s widow and allowing a dignified burial of his ashes can make the town heal.
The ending will especially get one thinking as what has happened and what has happened next for Eliza and Daniel. Even as Daniel learns after being recaptured that he was meant to be a criminal, he should be thankful he was able to be a priest and had the chance to do the right things while doing so. It’s possible being a priest during that time brought out his best personal traits while prison brought out his worst traits. It’s interesting to see that a killer who poses as a priest was the one that got the town to heal from the tragedy.
I commend the direction of the film by Komasa and the script by Pacewicz. This is a story that will keep you interested from start to finish. It has a lot to say and will allow one to draw their own conclusions of what the overall message of the film is. I don’t think the film is too critical of religion. We should remember Poland is a very religious country and the only European country where more than half of the population (65% to be exact) attends religious service at least once a month. Showing an anti-Catholic film in Poland is sure to spark outrage. I do feel both Komasa and Pacewicz were trying to make a critical statement without being disrespectful to the Roman Catholic Church. The statement being in Poland, anyone can be a priest.
Also excellent acting from Bartosz Bielenia. He did a great job as a man with immense faith but had something to hide. Eliza Rycembel was also very good at playing Eliza. She was good at knowing the truth of Daniel but being supportive in silent manner. Also very good was Alexandra Konieczna. Her best parts were the moments where she didn’t speak, but you call tell her emotions by her body language. Actually the acting from all involved was very believable and very good at telling the story. They were all very good at showing extreme emotion without going over the top.
Corpus Christi is the twelfth film representing Poland to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film (formerly Best Foreign Language Film).’ It was a highlight at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, it won the Edipo Re Award at last year’s Venice Film Festival, and Bielenia won the FIPRESCI Prize for Best Actor at this past Palm Springs Film Festival as well as the Best Actor award at the Stockholm Film Festival.
Corpus Christi is remarkable as it’s a film that will leave you asking more questions than giving you answers about the story. The film will also get you thinking about morality and how people judge others, or how flawed people deal with their feelings. You will be left thinking at the end.
Ellwood, Gregory. “Scammers or spiritually motivated, fake priests figure in Poland’s ‘Corpus Christi.'” Los Angeles Times. 1 Jan 2020. <https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2020-01-01/corpus-christi-delves-into-fake-priest-trend-in-poland>