- Film Movement
In Jan Komasa's Corpus Christi, a small town in rural Poland has a new priest. He's young, hip, charismatic and hugely compassionate. The townsfolk quickly come to love him, even whenhe's gently scolding them for merely going through the motions of a Mass instead of truly connecting with the God they're supposedly there to worship, even when he isripping the lid off secrets and lies, exposing pain, grief and anger that no one seems to want to give up. Father Tomasz is the unlikeliest of spiritual leaders—apriest in the truest sense, a healer of soul-deep hurts leading his congregants to peace and love.
The thing is, as it turns out, he's not a priest at all. His story, based on real events, will serve as a profound condemnation of the hidebound dogmatism and counterproductive narrowmindedness of the Catholic Church. It's also a provocative exploration of guilt and redemption, forgiveness and acceptance that has much to say even to those who aren'tin the least bit religious [raises hand].
We know that Father Tomasz is not what the town believes he is from the very beginning of this Polish drama, a 2020 Oscar nominee for Best InternationalFeature. "Father Tomasz" is actually 20-year-old Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia), recently released from juvenile detention after serving time for a violent crime. He foundGod in prison in a way that defies clichés—as does the entirety of this profoundly empathetic movie—and would love to go to seminary. But none wouldaccept him as a student, given his criminal record.
On parole, Daniel travels to this town for a job in a sawmill, but instead, a small lie he tells upon his arrival spirals into himstepping in to take over the local parish, for just a few days, from the elderly priest while the old man goes away to be treated for alcoholism. Daniel is mortified at first—he definitely did not intend for this to happen—but in many ways, this is his calling, what he wants to do, what he is very good at. Daniel helped serve Mass inprison, so he knows the rituals, but he also knows what hurting, lost people need to hear, because he has needed these himself, and still needs it. His solace lands well inthe town in the wake of a recent tragedy that took the lives of seven locals.
There's suspense here, while we wait for Daniel to be unmasked— which as is inevitable. There's also near constant terror in Bielenia's preternaturally blue eyes—the Polish actorlooks like a very young Christopher Walken, and oozes an aching vulnerability—except when he is finding a groove with a sermon that is as soothing to himself as itseems to be to the congregants. I suspect there may be a horror in all of this to the deeply devout. If one truly believes that only an ordained priest can dispense the lastrites that speed a dying person to heaven, or grant absolution of sins, then there is a town here that God'sglance and grace are passing over.
As a church outsider, however, and as a humanist, I see much-needed criticism of an institution that, in many respects, fails to appreciate the very human needsand frailties that most require understanding and comforting. The film's title means, literally, "Body of Christ"—as does the Polish title, Boze Cialo—which has a very specific meaning in the context of the church, referring to the communion host meant to be taken as literally Jesus's flesh. But we might seethose words, in the context of this movie, as asking us to consider that the church's avowed abhorrence of fleshly appetites and bodily pleasures, particularly for priests,isn't useful when priests have to minister to those of us for whom they are a part of life. Daniel is a fleshly being, even as "Father Tomasz," who communes with "his"congregants in ways that often seem unpriestly. The penance he assigns to a woman who confesses that she hits her son isn't one of prayer and reflection, buta physical task: Taking him biking. That his assignment seems like the exact correct thing for her to do is a small but extraordinary slap at a church that is often out of step with what people actually need.