I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Ugh, the Catholic Church, amirite?
A small town in rural Poland has a new priest. He’s young, he’s hip, he’s charismatic, he’s hugely compassionate. The townsfolk quickly come to love him, even when he’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 is ripping the lid off secrets and lies, exposing pain and grief and anger that no one seems to want to give up. Father Tomasz is the unlikeliest of spiritual leaders: he is a priest in the truest sense, a healer of soul-deep hurts leading his congregants to peace and love.
The thing is, he’s not a priest at all. His story — directed by Jan Komasa, written by Mateusz Pacewicz, and based on real events — will serve as a profound condemnation of the hidebound dogmatism and the counterproductive narrowmindedness of the Church. It’s also a provocative exploration of guilt and redemption, forgiveness and acceptance that has much to say even to those who aren’t in the least bit religious. *raises hand*
We know that Tomasz is not what the town believes he is from the very beginning of Polish drama Corpus Christi, an Oscar nominee this year for Best International Feature Film (formerly called Best Foreign Language Film). “Father Tomasz” is actually 20-year-old Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia), recently released from juvenile detention after serving time for a violent crime, the details of which we don’t initially learn, though they will become startlingly relevant. He found God in prison in a way that defies the usual clichés — as does the entirety of this profoundly empathetic movie — and would love to go to seminary… but none would accept him as a student given his criminal record.
On parole, Daniel travels to this town for a job in a sawmill — he’d done some work in the prison shop — but instead, a small lie he tells upon his arrival spirals into him stepping in to take over the local parish, for just a few days, from the elderly priest while the old man goes away for treatment for his 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 so very good at. Daniel helped serve Mass in prison, so he knows the rituals, but he also knows what hurting, lost people need to hear… because he has needed this himself, and still needs it. His solace lands well in the town in the wake of a recent tragedy that took the lives of seven locals.
There is suspense here, while we wait for Daniel to be found out, as is inevitable. There is near constant terror in Bielenia’s preternaturally blue eyes — the Polish actor looks 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 it seems 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 last rites that speed a dying person to Heaven, or that only an ordained priest can grant to absolution of sins that happens in confession, then there is a town here that God’s glance and grace is passing over. Perhaps that accounts for the sickly green pallor of Piotr Sobocinski Jr.’s cinematography, a suggestion that the plain joy that Daniel is experiencing as he genuinely helps people who really need help is illusory.
As an outsider of the Church, however, and as a humanist, I see much needed criticism of an institution that, in many respects, fails to appreciate the very human needs and frailties that most require understanding and comforting. The film’s title, Corpus Christi, means, literally, “body of Christ” — as does the Polish title, Boze Cialo — and that does have a very specific meaning in the context of the Church, referring to the Communion host meant to be taken as literally Jesus’ flesh. But we might see that, in the context of this movie, as asking us to consider that perhaps 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 those 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. He assigns a penance to a woman who confesses that she hits her son that isn’t one of prayer and reflection, but physical: Taking the kid biking.
That that seems the exact correct thing for her to do is a small but extraordinary slap at a Church that is out of step with what people actually need.