4.5 out of 5 Stars
Daniel, a 20-year-old convict in juvenile detention, enters the film CORPUS CHRISTI sawing wood in a workshop with other young men. It turns out to be a vocational class in a juvenile detention facility. The trainer is called away and the situation switches immediately: Daniel becomes the lookout as a beating takes place in the dimly lit room behind him. The dialogue is spare and jarring. The brutality is not graphic. It’s a masterwork of how such a situation can be portrayed effectively, but not explicitly.
CORPUS CHRISTI exceeds every expectation. The fledgling filmmakers, mostly-novice cast and limited budget combine to produce shockingly good cinema.
Bartosz Bielenia, a first-time screen actor, portrays the central character Daniel with remarkable complexity. One moment he looks like a young hood, sometimes he has angelic radiance, and on occasion he evokes “The Scream” by Edvard Munch. His open face, deep-set wounded eyes and blood-orange lips go from placid to troubled with a subtle knit of his brow.
It’s easy to see why this this astonishing third film from director Jan Komasa has become internationally acclaimed, frequently awarded and landed distribution deals in over 50 countries. Of nearly 100 submissions, CORPUS CHRISTI was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Film this year.
Komasa and writer Mateusz Pacewicz craft complex characters who are defined in ways that often escape notice. It’s amazing artistry. Stories are woven with threads that initially seem incompatible: crime, impersonation, grief, anger and religion.
CORPUS CHRISTI moves from the first scene workshop to the quietly choreographed transformation of a classroom into makeshift chapel. Daniel spreads a plain cloth on a table and furnishes it with religious implements. Father Tomasz leads an unconventional Catholic service after which Daniel asks him about getting into seminary — continuing a conversation they’ve had before we met them. Tomasz tells Daniel that his crime prevents it.
Other than the chapel service and brief mention of seminary, there’s not much about Daniel to indicate he’s interested in religion. He doesn’t resist impulses or excesses; and there’s no religious study or conversation. Daniel doesn’t seem aware that the priesthood is a life of personal denial.
Daniel is up for parole, and after resisting a situation that could have extended his incarceration, he’s soon on his way. The conditions of his parole assign him to a sawmill in a distant village.
Along the way it’s revealed that Daniel has pilfered a clergy shirt and collar. When he arrives at the village, instead of going to the sawmill, he visits a church where he chats with a woman his age and tells her he is a priest. When she doesn’t believe him, he shows her the priest’s garb.
Without missing a beat, Daniel is introduced to the vicar, dines at his house, crashes in a spare room, then wakes to find himself tasked with receiving confession. With no liturgical training, Daniel does as any 21st Century youth would… I won’t spoil it.
Shortly, Daniel finds himself at the helm of a church service, baptism and other priestly functions. He revels in feelings of accomplishment, aptitude and popularity — possibly for the first time in his life.
In the village there is a showy homemade memorial that honors the victims of a car wreck. Daniel asks questions, but people aren’t forthcoming — it’s too soon and the wound is fresh. Daniel places himself squarely at the center of figuring out what happened and why the town has demonized the widow of a victim whose photo is not on the memorial with the others.
Daniel relates to the emotions being felt by the victims and the widow. He uses his newfound prominence to try and foment healing. His approach is youthful, even brash; but it seems well-intentioned at the same time.
An ominous cloud hangs over most scenes, that at any moment Daniel will be exposed as a fraud. His denouement arrives and plays out unexpectedly — we find out a great deal about Daniel in a very short space. Like the preceding film, this is marvelous storytelling. The moving parts are not always obvious, but everything fits with precision.
What prevents this film from receiving 5 out of 5? The very end. It’s a coda that changes mood drastically. Some will lavish it for its explosive jolt; but for viewers who dislike savagery, DO SEE THE FILM, but trust your intuition when it seems like it might be upsetting: shield your eyes.
CORPUS CHRISTI opens Friday, March 13 at Landmark’s Chez Artiste Theater. Visit www.LandmarkTheatres.com for showtimes.