“Corpus Christi” by Polish director Jan Komasa is the essence of the modern civilization of Eastern Europe that truly reveals itself not on the highest level, but on the lowest one. And so, Komasa takes us really low – all the way to the juvie, where we meet the main character, 20-year-old Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia). Some synopses and reviews describe him as someone who has already experienced spiritual transformation and indeed, Daniel will be reborn by the end of the story – but definitely not at the very beginning. For now, it just seems like he has good surviving skills, and his friendship with the priest named Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat) might be working wonders for his safety, mental state and his possible future. Or maybe Daniel just really wants to believe that, also because his future is uncertain: he hopes to become a priest, but is denied this possibility like anyone else with a prison sentence. Meanwhile, criminal Bonus, who hates Daniel’s guts and has a valid reason to feel this way, suddenly returns to the juvie. Daniel decides to leave, heading out to start a new job at a sawmill, while in fact fleeing as far as possible from Bonus. Instead, by pure coincidence, he ends up pretending to be the new priest of a local church. And he is very good at it, too.
Daniel is full of life and a complicated character – very well written by Mateusz Pacewicz and astonishingly inhabited by Bielenia. As the story progresses, we get some clues helping us to understand, quite clearly, that he’s not a victim but a natural-born, violent criminal – one that ended up in the juvie after beating Bonus’ brother to death. It’s obvious that he turns to faith looking for some kind of relief, but he approaches it like a skilled copycat. During his first mass, Daniel repeats the line from Father Tomasz: “I’m not here to pray mechanically and neither are you, I hope” – one that sounds quite ironic, given his circumstances. But very soon he finds his own style, formed by the wild depths of his nature. Daniel became a believer in prison, obviously looking for some protection. For him, faith is a practical thing. In a marvellous scene showing his first confession as a priest, Daniel gives a rather original penance to a woman who has beaten up her son: “Take the child for a bike ride”, he suggests, instead of sticking to the traditional, useless praying. We don’t know if it works in this particular case, but in general, Daniel’s methods have an immediate effect on his parish, making him look like some modern Jesus “The Trixter”, one that wouldn’t allow anyone to crucify him for sure.
And there are many who would like to do it, as Jan Komasa shows a society of God-fearing hypocrites, using faith like a weapon helping to keep things in order – much stronger than any official laws. Especially in a small village crushed by a tragedy – six young people and an adult driver, later believed to be the main culprit, died in a car accident. A widow of that driver became a black sheep, hiding in her grief: she was chosen to be the scapegoat and took the blame for her husband, without any proof. True believers and “good people from a good place” banned her from burying her husband’s ashes at the local cemetery and abused her with threatening letters. Komasa looks into the depth of Poland with a mixture of anger and sarcasm, and finds something that could be spotted in the whole Eastern Europe. It’s not just about the religion, although “Corpus Christi” leaves you with a very precise take: “Many people, few believers”. It’s all about churches, places where there is no forgiveness, prisons where there is no progression and a dog-eat-dog society. It sounds very general, but the narrative of the film delivers this message in such a way that results in a profound, disturbing feeling, avoiding simplification and clichés. That’s probably its single greatest virtue.
The cinematography by Piotr Sobocinski Jr. achieves a delicate balance between focusing on Daniel’s close-ups, in the most intimate and stressful scenes, and observing things from some distance. His camera pays special attention to the light, as it becomes a visual keynote and even makes for a special arc that starts from Daniel’s stoned face at a disco and ends with an outrageous final shot. Of course, eventually Daniel is forced to stand up against furious Bonus, which turns this story into another David and Goliath parable – as long as you can picture David being this vicious. Despite some controversial reactions in Poland, “Corpus Christi” is a spiritual film, as Daniel’s initiation and redemption is connected to him bringing peace to the dead and understanding to the ones who are still alive. You can find a metaphor of resurrection in the final scene, but in this story, a holy miracle is replaced by a burial that leads to forgiveness – in some way, something that’s even more rare nowadays. “How can I imitate You?” – asks Daniel, bewildered, in one of his prayers, but it’s easier to imitate than to exist, and exploiting religious themes is easier than telling an honest, harsh and brutal story about faith. “Corpus Christi” feels like a breath of fresh air within independent Eastern European cinema, and there’s hope that the success of Jan Komasa’s ironic masterpiece will serve as a good example to anyone who believes that local cinematic trends are stuck in some gloomy stagnation.