When a young man with a troubled past arrives in a small-town Polish parish, he pulls off an unlikely feat, convincing the villagers that he’s a visiting priest. But not long after he’s welcomed by the community, he learns of a tragic accident whose repercussions have divided the town. Pursued by a dark secret from his own past, he urges the townspeople to search for the forgiveness that can make their community whole again, even as his own future becomes clouded with uncertainty.

Inspired by real-life events, “Corpus Christi” is the third feature film from Polish director Jan Komasa. His short film “Nice to See You” world premiered in the Cannes Cinefondation competition, where it won the third prize. Komasa’s feature debut, “Suicide Room,” premiered in the Panorama section of the Berlin Intl. Film Festival, while his sophomore effort, the World War II epic “Warsaw ’44,” was one of Poland’s top-grossing films in 2014.

“Corpus Christi” has its world premiere in Venice Days, which runs parallel to the Venice Film Festival, and makes its North American premiere in Toronto. New Europe Film Sales is handling world rights. Variety spoke to Komasa about faith and forgiveness in his latest feature, and why the themes in “Corpus Christi” are especially relevant today.

The movie is inspired by real-life events, but you added other elements — particularly about Daniel’s troubled background. What did you see in that story about a young man impersonating a priest that became a starting point for a larger exploration of faith, forgiveness and redemption?
I liked the main concept. I didn’t know much of the background — I didn’t have time to dig into it deeper. It was very well researched. The work [scriptwriter Mateusz Pacewicz and consultant Krzysztof Rak] did was tremendous, but I felt like it lacked more of a fire — some type of edge. I wanted Daniel to be more threatened. I wanted him to be a guy who’s basically on a tightrope — not only because he is in fear of [being uncovered] as a fake priest. I wanted to trap him, ensnare him, so he doesn’t actually have a place to go. Everyone chases him, pursues him — gang members, other people from juvie. He has a past, and the past also pursues him and catches up to him eventually. He’s not a fool, he knows he’s going to be uncovered anyway. But he buys his time to do something good, which makes him idealistic. And it made him more sympathetic in a way. At the same time, I felt like I understood the character once he had that edge.

I was struck by the way Daniel urges the townspeople to confront their anger and grief — doing it in a way that the church doesn’t give them space to do. The church seems to be more focused on forgiveness and redemption with the promise of an afterlife, whereas the message Daniel sends in the film is: “This is the kingdom of Heaven and Earth. It’s right here, right now.” As much as this is a story about faith in the religious sense, it’s also about human faith — faith in each other, faith in community.
We tried to [develop] this plot in the film. Partly because we in Poland, we had a horrible tragedy with 90-something people killed onboard a plane in 2010, with the president and a number of officials from the government. It was a horrible tragedy, most probably due to human error. What came after was even more telling. We could feel through the last nine years that the country literally split over the meaning and significance of the crash, with half of the country claiming it was a mystical sign of an old ending and a new beginning — to finally see the truth that we are besieged as a country. And the other half saying it was an accident, and you can’t draw any conclusions from an accident. You have people who detach the meaning from facts. In the era of “fake news,” it became even more hurtful to democracy and the community itself.

That was also inspiration for me to create this community [in the film], which gathered around one accident that happened, and part of the village becoming totally assured that it was because some evil happened. Since that moment the village was cursed, and they have to pray for a new era. And there are some people who don’t say it out loud, that know it was an accident, and even though it was a trauma, it doesn’t bear any more significance than a singular event can bear. They would say that the evil didn’t start with the accident; the evil, if there is an evil, was there before. If we can draw any conclusions at all, that was also why the accident happened in the first place. The evil was with us the whole time.

In the second half of the movie, it becomes clear to Daniel – particularly through his encounters with the mayor and the sheriff – that he’s at risk of being discovered. But he’s determined to force the townspeople to confront their hypocrisy and find a path toward forgiveness.
That’s the tragic cycle Daniel ended up with. Somewhere in the past, he beat somebody up, and that other person ended up in the hospital and eventually died. It was a tragic event, but Daniel is not a murderer. But the trauma might stay with him, because it’s not only the trauma of the victim and his family [that remains], but also of the perpetrator, which people tend to forget about. It’s such a burden for Daniel, that he’s already condemned for life. There’s no place he can run to or escape to — he’s trapped inside of his own mind, and what he did in the past. So in the end, he’s using the disguise of the priest to buy a little bit of time to feel like a human again — he builds himself up from the ashes. When he leaves the juvie, he doesn’t have a plan. He is unhinged. It’s just by [chance] that he’s been accepted as a priest. It was really hard to understand what really happened, and how fate can intermingle with your own life — how it can shape it, and how you can shape fate.

What attracts the townspeople to Daniel on some level seems to be the sincerity of his belief, the way he speaks about God and faith in a very down-to-earth way. There’s something authentic that they’re responding to, in contrast to the more formal and ritualized faith offered by the church. Is that saying something about your own religious beliefs, or a crisis in faith you see in Poland, or the world around you?
That’s the core of “Corpus Christi.” This movie is less about God and faith, but more about the craving of [people for] some sense in the world. I wanted to use my camera and film the moment in someone’s life when faith is necessary. I wanted to show where it comes from, and how it evolves, and how it encapsulates feelings — the sense of relief, redemption. It’s very human, in the sense that everyone has it. No matter if atheist or agnostic or believer.

Daniel is somebody who was excluded from a community. So when he is welcomed as a priest with open arms, he has this sense of belonging. But at the same time, he becomes very active in the community when he encounters a widow who is also excluded from the community, because he knows her position — what it’s like to be rejected. Being part of the community gives you this spiritual feeling. Maybe it’s part of what we call God, but I think it’s a very important part. The sense of belonging to a bigger piece that’s more than just yourself. I think that’s also religious. I think people are looking for answers to maybe unanswerable questions. Funny enough, that comes at a time of great turmoil, politically and socially and economically. I think it’s connected. That’s probably why “Corpus Christi” suddenly became more and more relevant.