Corpus Christi: impostor priest story explores redemption, healing and religious hypocrisy

Jan Komasa, “Corpus Christi” (2019)

For some odd reason, Poland has many fake Roman Catholic priests, many of whom must be doing a good job, and maybe even better, of ministering to their unsuspecting flocks as real qualified priests do, and this phenomenon comes under scrutiny in Komasa’s “Corpus Christi”. In another country – France or Italy perhaps – the story of an ex-convict pretending to be a priest, and not only being a very good impersonator but also helping to heal ongoing pain and trauma that are tearing a community apart, bringing people together, encouraging love and forgiveness, and helping people go forward in their lives as a result, might be treated as gentle comedy with themes of redemption, finding purpose and hope, and galvanising others with hope and new energy as well. The resolution might be messy and not turn out too well but nearly everyone becomes a better person. The Polish film however not only addresses the issues of redemption, love and forgiveness, and healing people and communities, it also investigates the nature of morality and spirituality and asks whether people who deceive others by masking their true identities are necessarily less moral and genuine than those who don’t, and whether such impostors’ actions are less genuine and constructive than the actions of others who are genuine. Do we place too much emphasis on people being properly “qualified” for the job they are doing and not enough on their actions while doing that job? Should people not be judged by what they actually do, what the results of their actions are, and what benefits or not those results bring to people and communities? Does the Church in Poland spend too much time insisting that people follow rules that may not be relevant to their lives, does the Church neglect people’s spiritual needs?

Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia), serving time for murder, is released on parole to work at a sawmill in a remote rural part of Poland. He eschews the work and goes to a small village where a church stands empty. He insinuates himself into the villagers’ lives by pretending to be a priest: he gets away with the ruse, having become religious while in juvenile detention and serving as an altar boy for the prison chaplain whose identity he adopts in the village. By working as a priest, hearing confession and officiating at Mass, baptisms, funerals and blessing new ventures, Daniel discovers the village has been traumatised by a car-crash accident that killed seven villagers: six of the villagers are remembered at a sidewalk shrine but the seventh villager, the one who caused the accident, is not only shunned by the villagers but has never been given a religious burial and his widow is ostracised by the village.

Thanks to this mystery and a number of other sub-plots that include a developing romance between Daniel and local girl Marta (Eliza Rycembel), a possible conflict with local village mayor and power broker who owns the sawmill where Daniel was supposed to work, and Daniel’s past coming back to reclaim and expose him as a fraud when a fellow parolee at the sawmill sees him and tries to blackmail him, the film is very brisk and maintains tension right up to the devastating climax and its denouement. The conclusion is very bleak and ambiguous. One expects that while the village, now healed of its trauma, can proceed and progress in a spirit of reconciliation, Daniel will not be shown the same mercy and spirit of forgiveness by society at large that he showed to the villagers.

Bielenia is unforgettable as the young ex-con who fools an entire village with his soulful eyes and a face at once angelic, stoic, expressive and yet hiding a nature capable of brutal violence. Several close-ups concentrate on his face, at times blank yet in deep thought and occasionally expressing tics. Bielenia is ably abetted by a good cast that includes Rycembel as the love interest Eliza, Alexandra Koniecna as Eliza’s dour mother who is also the sexton suspicious of Daniel and who nurses bitterness towards the banished widow (Barbara Kurzaj), and Leszek Lichota as the power-hungry village mayor. The grey-green colouring of the village and the film’s minimal presentation emphasise the isolation and poverty of its inhabitants, which make them vulnerable to imposter priests.

While some subplots such as the budding romance are not well developed and could have been jettisoned, the film is very compelling with good acting, a brisk pace and a mystery to solve. It asks questions about the nature of hypocrisy and where spiritual redemption might come from, and poses a challenge to the Church and other institutions in Polish culture and society.