Corpus Christi

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Corpus Christi
"There are themes around punishment and forgiveness running throughout this film but they're rarely simple."

God isn't confined to the chapel, the priest says. He is with us in every moment.

For Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia), it begins and ends with violence. The worst of what he has done is in the past, but to reach the next stage in his apparent redemption, to get paroled from juvie, he has to be willing to facilitate harm done by others, to act as a lookout whilst another man is tortured. Just stay sober when you're out, the priest warns him, but instantly he's downing shots, snorting white powder, shagging a stranger in the bathroom of somebody else's house whilst a party rages on the other side of the wall. He's young, full of life. He's on the fast track to an adult prison career. But something unexpected is about to happen to him, giving him the opportunity to do something different with his life.

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What happens is so serendipitous that it has the character of a Biblical tale, perhaps even of a parable. Daniel has previously felt drawn to the idea of entering a seminary, but in light of his criminal record, none of them will have him. Taking the train to a small town, he poses as a priest to impress a girl and before he knows it, he has been persuaded to stay with the local priest. When that man suffers health problems, he is asked to take over - just on a temporary basis and without telling the curia. At first he agrees because he's afraid of getting caught. Looking up the words and gestures he needs on the internet, he finds that they only get him so far. It's when he begins to wing it - to speak from the heart - that he discovers he really has something to give, and the realisation that he's actually helping people prompts him to reassess his own potential.

The deception at the heart of this story creates constant low-level tension and provides the opportunity for gentle humour which occasionally threatens to spill over into farce. Jan Komasa is too sophisticated a filmmaker to give way to these temptations, however. He takes a delicate approach to building up his characters and the relationships between them. Bielenia is perfectly cast and carries us convincingly through shifts in temperament that would seem impossibly sudden at any other age. His Daniel has enough intelligence behind his striking turquoise eyes to make viewers curious about him when he's no more than a small town thug, and as he takes it upon himself to try and resolve longstanding tensions stemming from a tragedy in the town, he begins to demonstrate an emotional awareness that might be inspired by Christ. Komasa goes to some lengths to draw parallels between the two - but is this Daniel's true nature coming out or is he simply playing the role given to him? if the latter is true, what does that have to say about the way we treat those who go astray?

There are themes around punishment and forgiveness running throughout this film but they're rarely simple. Mateusz Pacewicz's script frequently invites us to reach comfortable conclusions only to undercut them. It explores the ease with which people are drawn to charismatic leaders and is at pains to remind us that those who carry out Gods work are, for better or worse, only human. Piotr Sobocinski Jr's cinematography gives a freshness to the natural world, finds beauty in humble spaces and downplays the glamour of the artefacts and icons in the church itself. Folk melodies mingle with the religious motifs in the score, then contrast again with Daniel's favoured techno.

An intelligent and provocative film which alternately charms and unsettles, Corpus Christi is Poland's entry for the 2020 Best Foreign Language Oscar. It's a small torn drama with much bigger connotations and it thoroughly deserves its place on the world stage.

Reviewed on: 02 Nov 2019
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Daniel who experiences a spiritual transformation in a Youth Detention Centre. The crime he commits prevents him from applying to the seminary... but Daniel has no intention of giving up his dream.


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