Is it worth $10? Yes
“Corpus Christi,” the hot priest drama from Poland that sneaked into the race for the Best International Feature Film Oscar over more high-profile contenders, asks for a cathedral-sized suspension of disbelief. No, not a suspension of disbelief. A leap of faith.
How else to buy the notion of a young drifter weaseling his way into the good graces of grieving townsfolk by pretending to be a man of the cloth? It borders on high concept, and if this were a studio release, the story would be turned into a riff on “Groundhog Day” or “Doc Hollywood” with a sunny crowd-pleasing ending. Thankfully, director Jan Komasa has other ideas. He has crafted a grim and bruising character study that doesn’t pull any punches. It stealthily gets under your skin, as long as the focus is on its protagonist’s transformation.
That would be Daniel (saucer-eyed Bartosz Bielenia), who’s about to go back into society as the movie opens. The 20-year-old has served his time for an unspecified crime. (Let’s take a wild guess and say violence was involved.) But while at the youth detention center, he has found the Lord, and he’s ready to begin his studies at a seminary. Not so fast, says Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat), the facility’s priest, who has mentored the ostensibly reformed reprobate. No seminary will take a juvie ex-con under their wing, he says.
And so a crestfallen Daniel takes the long bus ride to the opposite side of the country to start work at a sawmill, just like any other former inmate. But fate, and the whims of screenwriter Mateusz Pacewicz that, he insists, are “inspired by real events,” places the attractive lad with the virginal pale blue eyes at a nearby church, and on a collision course with the people who will become his first flock. When he shows the sullen Eliza (Eliza Rycembel) his white collar, he’s introduced to the local vicar (Zdzislaw Wardejn), triggering a serendipitous chain of events that will see the new arrival substitute for the vicar on a temporary basis. Right place, perfect time.
The ensuing stretch of “Corpus Christi” is by far its most accomplished. Daniel starts by offering unorthodox penance for those seeking confession. That gets the ball rolling. Congregants see the new padre’s unorthodox sermons and hands-on approach to preaching the Gospel as the breath of fresh air that it is. It’s no act, either. Daniel discovers he’s a natural at this soul nourishment thing, something Komasa underscores in a series of lingering closeups of Bielenia that could best be described as gritty transcendentalism. (Think Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, with a rap sheet.) The director alternates these close-ups with a generous helping of long shots that convey the character’s internal isolation. (Cinematographer Piotr Sobocisnki’s widescreen vistas enhance the polished austerity Komasa is going for.)
It’s a good thing Daniel hears the calling, because it’s going to be put to the test when he becomes involved in helping residents, including the rebellious Eliza, heal from a tragic incident that claimed several young lives. This leads to a succession of scenes that shows Daniel butting heads with the village’s mayor (Leszek Lichota), who regards the young “cool” priest as a nuisance who is determined to kick the hornet’s nest. The Jesus parallels are unmistakable, and a bit too on the nose. Daniel has no interest in being a rural priest who heeds the status quo, but a nonconformist who questions authority, much like Christ himself. The comparison is not subtle, but it also illustrates the film’s central virtue. Its portrayal of a sinner finding his vocation is accessible to the devout and the skeptical alike. You don’t have to be Christian to be heartened by the cathartic effect Daniel has on these mourning families.
Alas, the past eventually comes a-knockin’, and rather than prioritize Daniel’s spiritual awakening, “Corpus Christi” opts for a more earthbound turn of events that sees secrets unearthed with clockwork precision before sending the film down an overly deterministic path toward bloodshed and brutality. Komasa and Pacewicz have nuanced things to say about organized religion and redemption, but they’re drowned out by a rather abrupt resolution that needlessly drags viewers through the mud. It feels like the conclusion of a different movie.
But it’s not difficult to forgive the filmmakers their trespasses, thanks to the gravity and star quality Bielenia brings to his portrayal of a man struggling to keep his demons at bay. Bringing to mind the young Paul Bettany, as well as Ewan McGregor circa “Trainspotting,” the actor imbues much-needed vitality to this humorless yet reasonably gripping drama that’s a tad too downbeat for its own good. His performance is strong enough to make a believer out of the most hardened apostate.