Corpus Christi, Poland’s nominee for Best International Film as this year’s Oscars, is a poignant and emotional drama about a young man who finds his spiritual self while in a juvenile detention centre. The opening scene briefly shows Daniel’s (Bartosz Bielenia) former personality as he keeps watch while a group of inmates assault another inmate. However, after one particular mass, Daniel undertakes a transformation and his faith becomes as unwavering as he dreams of becoming a priest.
Unfortunately, given his criminal record, he cannot legally pursue the profession. This does not stop him from trying, as he soon realises his dream in an unconventional way. Upon being released from the detention centre, a case of mistaken identity offers an otherwise unlikely opportunity.
The exact moment Daniel decides to carry out his plan to become a false prophet of sorts is never made clear, nor his reasoning. The screenplay incorporates several moments where the idea could have first formed: one is his bitter disappointment when leaving juvie, knowing he cannot legally follow his dream. Another occurs while on the bus to the sawmill, where he experiences judgement of his past for the first time. There is his brief and drunken idea to wear his priest outfit at a party. Also, there is his encounter at the sawmill, a place filled with other ex-cons,where he witnesses first-hand the work that will become his future.
Regardless of when he makes his final decision, it is clear the risk is worth it in his eyes. He is only 20 and doesn’t have any family that we hear of, or anything else to fall back on. Which is why when he first enters the church of a small town, and is mistaken for ‘Father Thomasz’, who is set to replace the town’s ailing current minister, he does not correct them.
His lack of formal training slowly becomes irrelevant as his passion for the church aids him. After learning that the town has recently suffered a tragedy, in which six young people were killed in a head on collision, he endeavours to help the families and friends of the victims in his position as the town’s substitute priest. Of course, it is only a matter of time before his past decides to pay him a small visit.
Bielenia is magnetic as the illegitimate priest. He sells the film’s allegory to the power of faith as we observe Daniel’s confidence grow while delivering sermons. Bielenia forces us to ponder if Daniel’s willingness to help those affected by the crash is genuine or a ploy to pocket church donations and avoid hard unrewarding life working at a sawmill?
A distinctly Polish film – at least 85% of the population identify themselves as Christians, the highest amount in Europe – Corpus Christi’s universal emotions would still resonate even if religion was stripped from the film. Other than Daniel’s sermons, it doesn’t preach in any way. It allows the viewer to decipher their own meaning several vague moments.
Corpus Christi is a cleverly constructed film filled with unexpected twists. It features an unforgettable performance from Bielenia, who is surrounded by a flawless supporting cast. Whether you are religious, spiritually minded, or a non-believer, this film asks pertinent and timely questions. It is a must-see, even if only to witness Bielenia’s captivating turn.