Oscars: How 'Corpus Christi' Director Hopes to Bridge Poland's Cultural Divide

Corpus Christi- Publicity Still - H 2019
Courtesy of Film Movement

To make his tale of a con-man priest whose lies help heal a town's trauma, Jan Komasa had to leave his urban bubble and reconnect with "the other side" of his divided country.

In Jan Komasa’s Corpus Christi, an ex-con tricks his way into an unsuspecting rural village, pretending to be a priest and taking over from its elderly vicar. Soon Father Daniel is stirring things up, packing them in with his emotional, unconventional sermons and proving remarkably forgiving of the town’s sinners.

What sounds like a comedy setup — a Polish version of Sister Act, perhaps — takes a more serious turn. The community has been traumatized by a car accident that killed seven young people. Their families are desperate for new spiritual leadership — leadership that Daniel increasingly comes to believe he is the man to?provide.

"Daniel is a liar who is able to squeeze the truth from people," says Komasa. "The people from the village feel rejected and abandoned, but he can connect to them because, as a former prisoner, he feels rejected too."

To make the film, Komasa abandoned his "safe urban and urbane bubble" in Poland’s capital, Warsaw, to venture deep into the Polish Bible Belt, where, much like in parts of rural America, he found a population gripped by anger and a fear of being forgotten, with many turning toward toxic nationalism and religious?fundamentalism.

"I feel the common threads in almost every country I go to — in Germany, in France, in England, in America — this same polarization," he says. "Disgruntled masses of people who feel rejected and totally dismissed by this elite bubble. Poland is not an exception. We are struggling to reconnect."

Poland’s national divide is played out in miniature in Corpus Christi, with the tragedy of the car accident standing in for the 2010 Smolensk catastrophe, the plane crash that killed 96 Polish dignitaries, including then-President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, Maria. Kaczynski’s twin brother, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, weaponized the national tragedy, using it to leverage political power for his right-wing Law and Justice Party, which now runs Poland (and has been heavily criticized by the European Union for cracking down on free speech and LGBT rights).

In the film, it’s Lidia (Aleksandra Konieczna), the embittered mother of one of the accident victims, who uses her unassailable position as a grieving parent to make sure the village never forgets the tragedy and never moves on.

But Corpus Christi ends on a moment of hope, as Daniel manages to convince the grieving families to reconcile, in part, with the widow of the man they blame for the accident. They even agree to allow him to be buried in the church cemetery.

"I would love to see these two bubbles in my country finally reconnect, though I don’t want to be naive," says Komasa. "But from my experience leaving my bubble and meeting the people ‘on the other side,’ I found out that, in their daily lives, they aren’t as extreme, as nationalist or hateful as the views they support. They don’t go around spouting racial slurs or condemning women’s rights. But somehow they feel that supporting this extreme conservative nationalist culture is the only way they can be heard. If they don’t use this high-caliber weapon, no one will listen. This is my attempt to listen, and tell their story as best I can."

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.