The Catholic Church has had its share of disturbing controversies, yet it still draws many to its flock. So much so that in Poland there appears to be an issue with fake priests — men pretending to be ordained ministers of the church, and many of them believing they are doing it for the “right” reasons.
“We have several cases of people pretending to be priests, impersonating priests or people of faith, like officials from church, each year in Poland,” filmmaker Jan Komasa says. “Obviously, the church doesn’t go around talking about it because it’s an issue for them, it shows that anybody can be a priest, to a certain degree, obviously. It’s being kept under the rug. But we know about several cases each year.”
That unexpected trend became a passion for Mateusz Pacewicz, a young writer whose short novel became Poland’s Oscar-nominated film “Corpus Christi,” that Komasa came on board to direct. According to Komasa, Pacewicz became obsessed with the motivations of these impostors, especially one case in which a young man pretended to be a priest during Corpus Christi, a Catholic holiday that occurs in May or June depending on the year.
“He was organizing the event in a small community in Poland and he really was sympathetic and people loved him. They were shocked to learn he was a fake priest,” Komasa says. “He really wanted to become a spiritual leader for them. The most surprising thing, astonishing, was the moment he got uncovered, people started to write letters to the Vatican, which ran an independent investigation. To everybody’s surprise, the Vatican [sanctioned] his sacraments because people didn’t know whether they were married, whether their children were baptized, etc. So, it was a big issue.”
Pacewicz went to the village this young man had operated in and talked to its residents. He eventually found the impostor, who he discovered had been excommunicated from the church. After writing his novel, a movie producer asked Pacewicz for the film rights and let him take a shot at the screenplay. When Komasa was pitched the finished script to direct, he thought he was “very lucky” to get the job.
The final film focuses on a fictional character, Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia), a young man looking to escape the chains of the juvenile detention center he lives in because of a second-degree murder sentence he received as a teenager. He forges a relationship with the priest at the youth center and has a spiritual transformation. But he cannot go to seminary because he’s a convicted felon. While in a work-release program, he is mistaken for a small town’s new priest and he jumps at the opportunity.
While Bielenia might seem perfect for the role once you’ve seen the film, Komasa had to persuade his producers, who were quite skeptical at first. As Komasa notes, “it was a huge risk.”
“When he came to the audition, he had long hair, he was very thin, he wore a long sweater, a beanie. He came with his dog,” Komasa recalls. “My father is an actor, so sometimes I have this intuition with actors, especially young ones, as to which one of them is really for the role and which one of them has the deepest, real, visceral hunger to play something different, to be bold and not to be scared with leaving their comfort zone.
“Bartosz had it and I felt it from the beginning and I knew that he’s capable of doing this. We just had to both work on characteristics of Bartosz and make him 10 kilos heavier and bigger, more muscular, behaving like a hooligan.”
Part of that research meant visiting juvenile detention centers and talking to the inmates. Komasa notes, “We were even invited to sleep in one of the juvies for two nights with other inmates. Once Bartosz put his hands on the material, he knew what to do with it. At some point, I just watched him become Daniel. It was a complete transformation.”
Komasa’s previous work has screened at the Cannes and Berlin Film festivals, but having made the shortlist for the international film Oscar is a noteworthy moment in his career.
“I was asleep at the time, so my daughter woke me up. I was too exhausted to even process it, so I just gave her a high-five and that was it,” Komasa says. “I was pretty stressed out because I sacrificed a month and a half of campaigning. I really wanted ‘Corpus Christi’ to be watched by the academy voters. People, I felt, really responded to the film and somehow it struck a chord with a lot of people in different cultures. “