A review of the powerful Polish competitor to win the statuette for Best International Film at the last Oscar ceremony
[Texto en ESPAÑOL]
“You know what we’re good at? Giving up on people. Pointing the finger at them. To forgive doesn’t mean to forget. Forgive means Love. To love someone despite their guilt. No matter what the guilt is”.
This is the quote I will remember from the whole movie. Perhaps the best scenes of Corpus Christi are those of the homilies, where the impostor father gives speeches charged with compelling truth. Words that hurt and transcend the traditions of the Church. Words that can be translated as heresy but that in the end reflect the most essential precepts of an institution that needs to adapt to changes. Such is its potency.
Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) is an unfortunate and rebellious man in his twenties who is soon to finish his sentence in a Warsaw juvenile detention center, due to a second-degree murder happened during his teens. In the course of this imprisonment, he has undergone a rediscovery of his spirituality and wants to become a priest, but his criminal records prevent him from studying in a seminary. Frustrated, he is released on parole and sent to work at a sawmill in the countryside on the other side of the country, where he is mistaken for the new priest. Seeing a possibility of fulfilling his religious vocation, Daniel deliberately adopts the identity. This is how his new life begins: the young priest from the capital who begins to give masses in the town’s small parish. An impostor priest who does not have bad intentions and little by little transforms the lives of his parishioners, until problems begin: on the one hand, his criminal past haunts him; and on the other, his radical vision of faith and religious life collides with the local’s sensitivity regarding a tragic incident. That is the plot of Corpus Christi.
The cinéma d’auteur in the land of Wajda and Kieślowski is still promising. Every year a new film is present in international festivals and even makes it to commercial theaters of remote countries like mine—Peru. In 2018 we had the last example with the magnificent Cold War (Zimna wojna in Polish) by Paweł Pawlikowski—whose movie Ida was the first Polish film to win the award for the foreign film in the 2015 Oscars—and now it was the turn of Komasa, a young filmmaker with a fruitful filmography. Corpus Christi is the literal translation of Boże Ciało, the original name of the film in his native Poland, whose story is based on real events: his screenwriter, the even younger Mateusz Pacewicz, published a reportage in the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza a few years ago, titled Kamil, the one who posed as a priest. Curiously, this case has been repeated in different parts of the country. When writing the script for the film, there were two central themes: “social roles, and all the questions connected with our social roles in the theater of everyday life. The other topic was trauma: how our traumas shape who we are, and how they enslave us, both as individuals and social groups”, said Pacewicz, interviewed by Notes from Poland.
On the other hand, we must remember that Corpus Christi is not the first Polish film in recent years that sparks controversy speaking about the Church: Clergy (Kler), by Wojciech Smarzowski was a bomb from 2018 that portrayed the highest institution of the Catholic faith as a corrupted entity, hypocritical and invaded by pedophilia. But these are two very different movies. While Clergy works as a straightforward, more aggressive criticism film, Corpus Christi is sustained by a more contemplative discourse, questioning with ideas.
It is worth getting deeper into the protagonist. Father Daniel is quite a complex character, and Bielenia plays him with virtuosity. An insolent young man, a convicted criminal who seizes an opportunity and usurps an identity in order to give himself into his spiritual illumination. He believes he does it for the right reasons, however, his way of consummating this awakening is dishonest. In this context, his imposture verges on blasphemy. It is interesting to see how this blasphemy transforms into a challenge at the film’s core: the confrontation with a small community invaded by collective trauma. To make them see their cynicism and hypocrisy. Certainly: through Daniel’s modern and unorthodox preaching, the locals begin to deal with issues such as guilt, the true meaning of forgiveness, violence, death and mourning, or the different ways of embracing spiritual life. Daniel raises concerns and annoyance in the idiosyncrasy of this little town marked by a recent tragedy, whose inhabitants think of themselves as decent people with good manners, and suddenly discover they are imperfect. They are sinners. Thus, the film seeks to question the viewer’s own impiety, in these times where reigns a lack of compassion that leads to misconceptions and inequality.
Towards the end, we see that Daniel does not reach that desired conversion. When his criminal past returns and his deception is revealed, Corpus Christi distances from the linear happy ending to give us one as open as it is cruel. It works, but maybe it would have been preferable to dig more into the mind and the transformation of its main character and less in the trauma of the villagers. Perhaps the only thing I find dissonant with the plot is the scene of sexual intimacy between Daniel and his friend Marta (Eliza Rycembel). The consummation of his attraction feels gratuitous. It would have been better to leave their relation shrouded by the silent desire we see throughout the film. However, none of this reduces the strength and relevance of this story.
Corpus Christi has won various awards around Europe and became one of the five nominees for Best International Film at the 92nd Academy Awards ceremony, where it lost to the colossal Parasite. Bong Joon-ho’s movie deserves its accolades: it is a huge lash, a marvelous shock to the divided reality of our times. But honestly, it had already won too many awards, and I cannot help thinking that its statuettes are essentially related with the Academy’s eagerness for political correctness. The Oscars are very fun to watch and comment, but they happen to be also very politicized—which diminishes their artistic relevance, I dare say—in recent years. I think Corpus Christi should have won the Oscar for the best foreign film, its only nomination.
Finally, the fact that this story was born and set in Poland is not a coincidence. We are talking about a society that is historically Catholic and currently led by a very religious far-right government. At the same time, we are talking about a country where a considerable part of the population faces some disbelief, where Catholicism and church attendance are decreasing dramatically in the younger generations, gradually heading towards secularization. Despite such local setting, it is important to accept that the story told in Corpus Christi could happen anywhere. A fable about an impostor priest of small parish in a remote and rural town, whose message ends up being just as necessary or why not, just as universal.