What makes a priest a priest? Technically, the answer is devotion to God, completion of seminary training and ordination by a bishop to deacon status — all this must happen before one can wear the collar. But Jan Komasa’s stunning, quietly subversive “Corpus Christi” sees the question in more existential terms, permitting a well-meaning juvenile delinquent to skip all that spiritual preparation and to con a small Polish community into accepting him as a kind of proxy while the parish’s regular priest sobers up. The result makes for a powerful, deservedly Oscar-nominated drama, and a launching pad for fresh-to-American-audiences young actor Bartosz Bielenia in the soul-contorting lead role.
With his tortured energy and intense, ice-on-fire eyes, this mysterious interloper is earnest, not unhandsome and surprisingly effective in his unconventional methods, and the serious-minded movie’s sympathy is unambiguously in his corner, even if what he’s doing is immediate grounds for excommunication. Inspired by real events (but no more so than “Sister Act,” really), the film dramatizes what turns out to be a fairly common occurrence in contemporary Poland: Evidently, every few months, someone is outed for impersonating a man of the cloth. What draws these men to such a deception? And how do they manage to pull it off?
Faith — that cornerstone of Christianity — backfires on believers when those who lead them cannot be trusted (which extends to the phenomenon of sexual abuse that has crippled the Catholic Church in recent years, though that far-graver problem lurks largely between the lines here). “Corpus Christi” writer Mateusz Pacewicz based his intriguingly nuanced script on an actual case where a layperson managed to pass as a small-town priest for several months, embellishing the character’s criminal background, and inventing the notion that the community in question was in such desperate need of healing (a recent drunk-driving accident killed seven, and the victims’ families are thirsty for catharsis) that the impostor proved to be a welcome influence.
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In this liberally reimagined version of events, Bielenia’s Daniel is not just a con artist but a convert, wrestling throughout with some unspoken guilt and blocked from a genuine desire to attend seminary by his criminal record, whatever that may be. Although his character offers confession to others on no fewer than three occasions, we never hear the specifics of his own transgression. His aggression, however, lies barely restrained beneath the surface (at one point, he even head-butts a menacing member of his congregation).
It serves as one of the primary challenges of Bielenia’s remarkable performance that he must convey the weight of this ambiguous burden on the character’s conscience, along with the mystery of why he chooses to reinvent himself in this way (apart from escaping the drudgery of working in a sawmill, like his fellow parolees). “I am a murderer,” he announces to his congregation from the altar in one of his sermons, although the statement proves to be little more than a provocative hook designed to get their attention. Or is it? Another, “I’m not here to pray mechanically,” Daniel lifts directly from his mentor, Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat), the priest for whom he served as a kind of altar boy in lockup.
Nearly 30, Bielenia and his cohorts seem too old to be in juvie, and yet, he appears youthful enough that it’s surprising that people aren’t more skeptical about his clergical claims. Led by local den mother Lidia (Aleksandra Konieczna), the Catholic community wants to believe — which is a kind of statement unto itself, as Komasa slyly examines the sheep-like way so many followers accept the church’s authority. It helps that Daniel’s so charismatic, and has such a lovely singing voice. The more urgent critique, however — the one that hitches a ride on society’s growing disillusion with organized religion — has to do with the hypocrisy and corruption “Corpus Christi” exposes within the system.
It’s there in the sorry excuse for a priest already serving in town (played by Zdzislaw Wardejn). More tellingly, however, the rot reveals itself in the morally questionable arrangements that burned-out old drunk made before Daniel’s arrival: He agreed to bless the opening of a factory as a favor to the mayor (Leszek Lichota), who menacingly exerts pressure on the church to get what he wants. Daniel also discovers that the previous priest caved in to pressure from the grieving parents not to bury the other driver in the church cemetery, despite the fact that evidence suggests the accident didn’t happen as they’ve willed themselves to believe.
All of this makes for compelling dramatic conflict, and it’s satisfying to watch an impostor shake up the status quo. But there’s also a soap opera-like dimension to “Corpus Christi” that threatens the more thoughtful aspects of the script. The first person Daniel encounters in the new church is Lidia’s daughter Eliza (Eliza Rycembel), and the sexual tension between them feels like an unnecessary temptation. After overlooking any number of ways that Daniel’s deception might have been exposed, it doesn’t sit right that a fellow prisoner (Tomasz Zietek) should be the one to discover his secret, threatening blackmail via an unwelcome subplot.
By what must have been a conscious casting decision, all of the film’s main characters — Daniel, Tomasz, Eliza — boast penetrating blue eyes. Bielenia’s are by far the most striking, but the cumulative impact of studying their faces lends a depth to the movie that dialogue alone cannot. In the space left empty of words, audiences are free to project all manner of interpretations. What Komasa and company fail to convey, however, is a sense of why Daniel’s actions are so, well, unforgivable.
In the Catholic faith, when a man sets out to become a priest by the appropriate path, the process culminates in his being named an alter Christus, or Christ-like surrogate to his congregation. There’s a divine dimension to this transformation, and yet the movie implies that the community Daniel deceives is better off for his influence, when in fact, he leaves it in greater turmoil than he found it. This points to the ultimate paradox found in nearly all religious-themed cinema: What are we to make of any of it, when the simple act of storytelling obliges the director to play God over his characters? Relative to that, impersonating a priest seems at most a minor peccadillo.