'Corpus Christi' ('Boze Cialo'): Film Review | Venice 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
Bartosz Bielenia in 'Corpus Christi'
Not quite a religious experience, but original and absorbing.

After his spiritual awakening in juvenile prison, a 20-year-old violent offender passes himself off as a priest in a community still reeling from tragedy in Polish director Jan Komasa's third feature.

What is true faith and what's fakery is a question that runs through Polish director Jan Komasa's slow-burn drama Corpus Christi, its dark intensity channeled in a dynamically physical, wild-eyed performance from talented young lead Bartosz Bielenia. Themes of salvation and sacrifice, damnation, retribution and redemption will make this too Catholic for some art house tastes, and the overlong film becomes draggy and lugubrious in patches. But there's visual command and a compelling intimacy to the storytelling, plus intellectual engagement in the reflection on who gets to claim nearness to God.

Inspired by true events and written by Mateusz Pacewicz, the movie opens with an arresting jolt of brutality as one of the inmates in a juvenile detention facility gets roughed up when the supervisor steps away in a carpentry workshop. The hollow gaze of 20-year-old Daniel (Bielenia) as he keeps watch suggests he's inured to that kind of violence. But in the next scene's religious service he leads the group singing Psalm 23  "The Lord Is my shepherd"  in what appears to be a legitimate state of grace.

Discussing his imminent release with the prison priest, Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat), Daniel suggests he has found a religious vocation. But the cleric tells him a criminal record rules out the priesthood, encouraging him to settle for the sawmill job he has secured for him in a remote spot on the other side of the country. Further evidence arises that Daniel, whose violent offense has made him a target for retaliation, is not typical man-of-the-cloth material; he parties hard at a club with his druggy buddies and works off his sexual tension in some slam-bang action with a female student.

One look at the sawmill and the likelihood of running into enemies there from his time inside makes him walk away from the job arrangement and into the nearby small town. In an impulsive lie backed by the clerical collar he swiped, Daniel convinces a young local, Marta (Eliza Rycembel), and her embittered mother, Lidia (Aleksandra Konieczna), who serves as the sacristy caretaker, that he is a recently ordained priest from Warsaw. Before long, he has been presented to the elderly vicar (Zdislaw Wardejn), whose poor health requires him to take a break, persuading Daniel to fill in for him.

Nervous at first, Daniel starts by parroting prayers he learned from Father Tomasz, brushing up on Bible passages and looking up Holy Confession protocol on his smartphone. But soon he's improvising impassioned sermons, causing the number of churchgoers to swell. The community has been unable to move on from a tragedy in which seven youths were killed in a car accident, including Marta's brother. Bereaved family members hold a nightly vigil at a roadside shrine. They are in desperate need of new spiritual leadership, and Daniel increasingly comes to believe in his ability to provide it.

The story's later developments are not always as lucid as its setup, but the frequent searching close-ups of Daniel's face have a magnetic pull as he settles deeper into the assumed role. Moments such as when he's called one night to administer last rites to an old woman are strangely moving.

Finding an ally in Marta, he even takes up unpopular initiatives like insisting on a proper funeral for the driver of the other car in the accident, whose widow (Barbara Kurzaj) has been harshly ostracized. This makes Daniel a figure of compassion, which tempers his deception and adds to the drama's moral ambiguities. But foreshadowing indicates from early on that his past eventually will catch up with him, fueling a tense final act that includes explosive violence.

Komasa directs with an impressive rigor that fits the subject matter, and the incorporation of subtle ecclesiastical embellishments in the score adds to the imposing solemnity. The smoldering center of it all is Bielenia's remarkable performance. Daniel is an outsider who becomes an unlikely vessel of comfort and perhaps even healing for a town locked in grief. At the same time, his own faith continues to be tested, along with the adherence to Christian doctrine of many in the community. Daniel keeps us guessing about whether religion is a mere escape for him or a true spiritual transformation in a world where forgiveness doesn't come easy.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days)
Production companies: Aurum Film, Canal + Polska, Walter Film Studio

Cast: Bartosz Bielenia, Eliza Rycembel, Aleksandra Konieczna, Tomasz Zietek, Leszek Lichota, Lukasz Simlat, Zdislaw Wardejn, Barbara Kurzaj
Director: Jan Komasa
Screenwriter: Mateusz Pacewicz
Producers: Aneta Hickinbotham, Leszek Bodzak
Director of photography: Piotr Sobocinski Jr.
Production designer: Marek Zawierucha
Costume designer: Dorota Roqueplo
Music: Galperin Brothers
Editor: Przemyslaw Chruscielewski
Casting: Konrad Bugaj, Pawel Czajor
Sales: New European Film Sales

111 minutes