Review: ‘Corpus Christi’ is an Oscar-nominated knockout
When a foreign-language film with an unknown cast and unheralded director emerges from nowhere to be one of five selected (out of 93 submitted) for the finals of the super-competitive best international film Oscar, you know something out of the ordinary is going on.
Poland’s “Corpus Christi” fits that definition and then some. Oscar nomination aside, it has been one of that country’s biggest hits internationally, winning 36 prizes in 60 festivals and finding distribution in 50 countries.
Directed by Jan Komasa in only his third feature and starring a complexly compelling Bartosz Bielenia, this is a blistering drama, intense, disturbing and inescapably thought-provoking, a film that gets its power from a merging of potent opposites.
On one side are all the elements of a classic thriller: agonizing tension, the constant air of potential doom, the sense that anything could happen at any moment to bring on chaos and ruin.
But these qualities cluster not around questions of espionage, violent crime or high-stakes robbery but rather ideas that are unapologetically philosophical.
What is the nature of sin, of belief? What deep needs does religion fill and how does it go about filling them? Overshadowing everything is the biggest, most provocative question of all: Who gets to speak for God?
Squaring that particular circle between thriller and moral dilemma is a brooding, disquieting film that is very sure of itself, a movie at home with secrets and lies, anger and hypocrisy, a film where nothing happens the way any of its characters expect.
Based on real events, as so many films are these days, “Corpus Christi” upends convention in how its protagonist, 20-year-old Daniel (Bielenia) is introduced, looking like a cold, cadaverous bird of prey as he serves as lookout while a savage beating is taking place inside a youth detention center.
Daniel is fortunate — he is being paroled, though he’s very much frustrated that the condition of his parole is employment at a small-town lumberyard at the other end of the country.
For, as a scene of him assisting the unconventional Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat) at a detention center Catholic service demonstrates, Daniel has gotten religion during his time inside (he’s even gotten hold of a shirt with a clerical collar) and he’s upset that his criminal past will keep him out of the seminary.
“There are many other ways to do good in life,” the priest says, trying to console him, little dreaming what other way Daniel is about to stumble into.
Stopping at the town’s church before reporting to the lumberyard, Daniel enters into a bantering relationship with a young woman named Marta (Eliza Rycembel) and, almost on a whim to one-up her, says he is a priest and pulls out that clerical-collar shirt to prove his point.
Much to Daniel’s astonishment and trepidation — remember, he is a real believer — everyone takes him at his word, including Marta’s mother, Lydia (Aleksandra Konieczna), the housekeeper to the alcoholic local priest.
When that worthy is incapacitated and then has to temporarily leave town, it makes sense to everyone for the fortuitously arrived new young priest to take over the older man’s ecclesiastical duties.
Daniel, for his part, is both terrified and thrilled. But even from his first moments, taking confession using instructions lifted from a smartphone app and telling a worried mother her penance is to go biking with her troublesome son, one thing becomes clear.
Unlikely as it sounds, unlikely as it is, Daniel’s instincts about himself are correct. This young man has a genuine calling, a way of understanding people and trying to help them deal with their lives through the vehicle of the church and Christ that is all the more effective for the unconventionality of his sincere presentation.
Despite having to deal with the constant conflict between his desire to help and his fears of being revealed, Daniel, played with a compelling intensity by Bielenia, is shown growing in his vocation.
When he looks out at happy families gathered in church one Sunday for baptism and bursts out with a spontaneous “The kingdom of heaven on earth, it’s right here, right now,” the congregation responds with emotional applause.
Daniel also finds himself involved in a genuine local crisis, the bitter, convoluted aftermath of a horrible head-on collision that killed seven, half a dozen of the town’s brightest young people in one car and the despised town malcontent in the other.
Expertly written by Mateusz Pacewicz, tautly directed by Komasa and filled with twists and surprises, “Corpus Christi” is riveting right up to its closing frame. The thrilling narrative power of complex moral decisions is simply not to be denied.
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Playing: Landmark’s Nuart, West Los Angeles
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