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>
At first I didn’t plan to see Cold War. It had a lot of good rapport, but I doubted its Best Picture chances. It may not have been nominated for Best Picture, but it did earn three nominations including Best Director. That’s enough to catch my intrigue.
The film begins in the late-1940’s. World War II has ended and Poland is now under Communist rule. People from the Communist party are called out to go into the towns and villages of farmers and peasants. They meet out in a remote area consisting of a forest, a single solitary building, and a bombed-out church. Their purpose is to create an ensemble of Poland to be shown to the Communist world. The art will consist of traditional song and dance, but will also consist of propaganda songs too. This is the new world order. Wiktor Warski and Lech Kaczmarek are the two men hired to construct this ensemble.
The men decide the pieces to have for the choir as well as the dances to have for the shows. They also decide who will be singing the lead for the choir. During the audition, Wiktor takes a special interest in a singer named Zuzanna, but nicknamed ‘Zula.’ Lech notices the affection between the two. Zula is not that vocally skilled as the other female singers, but has that ‘it’ quality and sings lead through most of the choir songs. During the time of rehearsals, Wiktor increasing becomes more in love with Zula. Their love for each other continues as the ensemble Masowske finally start performing for the whole of the nation.
However years later, the leads of the ensemble decide to develop propaganda songs that will be sung during the performance. They will also be touring internationally to other Eastern Bloc countries with the goal to eventually win praise in Moscow. The tour goes into East Berlin as part of the plan. The show goes well, but unsuspectingly Wiktor notices the French Sector which can easily be crossed. Wiktor invites Zula to cross with him, but she’s afraid, feeling that something will be lost behind. Wiktor does crosses and would eventually settle in Paris, France.
In the years since his defection, he has immersed himself into the jazz scene and even formed his own ensemble, becoming very successful. He’s even married to a French poetess Juliette. One night while his band is on tour in Split, Croatia, he notices the Polish ensemble he was a part of is performing there. He goes to watch the show. Zula is able to notice Wiktor in the crowd. Before they can meet, the secret service drags him back to Paris.
Years later, Wiktor notices Zula again, but in Paris. Wiktor fills in with his life of how he’s found a woman of his own. Zula tells him she’s married to a Sicilian man in Italy. She defected the ‘proper’ way. Zula is able to become a successful jazz singer under the wing of Wiktor which includes singing a jazz adaptation of one of the ensembles’ songs. However Wiktor notices something else in Zula. Zula has become very flirtatious. He notices it when ‘Rock Around The Clock’ is performed in the bar and she dances around with many a man. It takes Wiktor to stop this. They have an argument outside, but it becomes clear the argument exposes their selfishness and their ambitions. In the end, their worst traits are exposed and it sours their love for each other. It’s noted how Wiktor’s jazz playing has gotten worse that something is wrong.
In 1961, Zula is back in Poland fairly. Wiktor wants to return, but Lech informs him of how much he has insulted the country with his defection. Lech informs him that he can spend 15 years in a labor camp for what he has done. Wiktor is willing to accept for the sake of winning Zula back. Zula hears the news and goes to the prison camp to find him. Upon being reunited, they need to reaffirm their love for each other despite it all. They go back to the ruins where it all started.
This is a slow story of a love that grows and faces friction through art and political tension. The purpose of the slowness is to feel the dramatic tension of the love between the two. We have a man and a woman who have a love for each other, but face the tests of politics with the Cold War and the Iron Curtain causing a lot of division between the two. Plus we have the personal obstacles of the two, most notably their pride, that possibly is the biggest barrier between the two. They both love each other, even through marriages of their own, but their selfishness gets in the way.
I believe that was the point of the film. The central theme of the film is about divisions. We have the Cold War that represents the divided world. We have the selfishness and pride of Wiktor and Zula that causes division in their relationship. We also have the division of the two arts as jazz is more Wiktor’s thing. I think that’s the reason the film is shot in black and white. Pawlikowski may have done black-and-white before in the film Ida, but here, black and white is fitting as it represents all the divisions in the film.
The divided world may be the common ‘world’ in the film, but possibly the most present world in the film is the world of music. The film shows a lot about the arts in both song and dancing. It’s the song of peasant people that is the heart and soul of the people’s voice. It is the stoic choir singing propaganda songs that represents the new rigidity Poland has to go through and the ‘free world’ has to deal with. It is the happy folk dancing that shows the joy of the Polish people of generations past. It is the Rock Around The Clock dancing that shows Zula’s freeness and thus her biggest personal weakness. It’s that song of the love that can’t be allowed sung by Zula as lead of the choir and in a jazz song that becomes symbolic of the obstacles in the love between Zula and Wiktor. Music and dance are the biggest metaphors in the film.
This is possibly the crowning achievement of Pawel Pawlikowski, which he directs and co-writes with Janusz Glowacki and Piotr Borkowski. Pawlikowski has been mostly involved with the British film scene, but has recently delivered films in the Polish language. His previous film, Ida, was shot in black and white and won Best Foreign language Film three years ago. Here he delivers another Polish-language film. The story is more personal as it’s based on the romance of his own parents. The film he delivers is a masterpiece both of filmmaking and art. It’s a charming story that incorporates love, politics and music that works as a bittersweet romance.
The acting was also very good. Joanna Kulig is very good as Zula. Kulig has acted in many of Pawlikowski’s films before like Ida and The Woman In The Fifth. This film is her best performance. Tomasz Kot also does a very good job of playing the complicated Wiktor. Borys Szyc does a very good job in his first film role. Borys is more famous as a musician rather than an actor. Lukasz Zal does an excellent job with the cinematography in the angles he chose and the way they add to the story. The music, both original by Marcin Masecki and that performed by the performers make the story and add to its richness.
Cold War is one of the surprises of this year’s Oscar season. Those who see it will know why it has its recent renown.