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I haven't seen nearly enough films from Catholic-majority countries to have the evidence I'd need to develop this into a real theory, but I have what I shall refer to as a notion that right now, the most interesting movies about the status of religious faith in the modern world, especially those aligned with (though not necessarily sympathetic to) the faithful, are coming from Poland. As a relatively new piece of evidence, I offer Corpus Christi, the 2019 third feature by director Jan Komasa, which had the sorry fate of being pretty much immediately written off in the United States, at least, as "the fifth one" nominated for Best International Film at the 92nd Academy Awards.* This is unfair, on top of being hard to defend (on pretty much every level where they could be directly compared, I'd give this film the edge over Les Misérables), but I suppose that's the difference between a film being known for bad reasons, and not being known at all.

And Corpus Christi, I think, definitely deserves to be known. It is a film of narrow concerns, but it expresses them with uncommon power and delicacy, and no little amount of visual beauty. And if this comes at the cost of a screenplay that basically blows itself with a contrivance of the purest sort once it realises that it's going to take too much work to resolve its narrative conflicts cleanly, well, at least we have a real humdinger of a lead performance to help carry us through that part.

The scenario, based (we are told) upon a true story, feels like it could fuel anything from a hot-blooded thriller to a charming rural character-based sitcom, but in this case, it's pure Euro-art character drama: Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) is wrapping up his time in a juvenile detention center, serving out a sentence for second-degree murder. His time here is spent in all the ugliness and cruelty that are to be found in such a place, but he has had a spiritual awakening of sorts listening to the prison priest, and has decided to devote the rest of his life to atoning for his sins by serving God as a clergyman. Because of his criminal record, however, he cannot. And so it is that one day, after arriving in a small town to take a job at a sawmill, he wanders into the local church, and sort of just... pretends to be a priest. And he keeps pretending this even when he meets the actual priest, Father Tomasz (Łukasz Simlat), who is very happy an eager young man who can help shoulder the weight of ministering to the parish, especially with his own health in doubt.

That's basically it for story. There are incidents, some of which make it feel like screenwriter Mateusz Pacewicz is leaning on us harder than others, some of which feel like they're building up to greater moments and some which just kick back and observe the life of the parish. And because this is a movie (and, frankly, because Daniel's not very bright), there is of course a point at which evidence threatens to come out that will reveal Daniel's deception, and he needs to decide what to do about that. I do wish the evidence came in a slightly less whole-heartedly arbitrary form and led to a less random, ginned-up third act, but we live in an imperfect world, as Corpus Christi is well aware.

The film is about a lot of things in small ways, but it all comes down to the desire to find some kind of anchor in a world that doesn't offer any. The decaying authority of the Catholic Church hangs like a shroud over Corpus Christi, which never needs to have anyone state that theme outright for it to be clear this is all about people with a need that was historically filled by the Church scrambling for something that can provide a glimmer of meaning and direction in their lives. Daniel is foremost among the lost souls, of course, and it is both the central irony and the most moving strength of the film that it tells a story in which a liar and fraud who is himself in dire need of absolution is the only person who can help a broken community find closure and a chance to move forward. It is about the quest for moral authority that comes to the conclusion that moral authority is the wrong way to think about how people can best help other people. The presence of a hierarchy gives comfort to the townspeople and enables them to make the choices they need to make; but the lesson of Daniel being the one to fill that position is that the hierarchy itself is part of the problem, a limitation on wisdom rather than a way of enabling it.

This is all a bit neat and tidy, and the plot that gets us there is much neater and tidier still. Everything is a bit tidy, in fact, right down to the way that Komasa and cinematographer Piotr Sobociński, Jr. (a third-generation cinematographer) frame most of the compositions as perfectly balanced, static shots in which the characters are surrounded by muted colors and dusty light. It's handsome as hell, and the stateliness of the images works well in the context of the story, but it's not really surprising, any more than the script is. What isn't tidy, and what ultimately pushes Corpus Christi from a thoughtful but perhaps lifeless study of the way that faith functions, is Bielenia's performance. Even, really, just his physical appearance, a gaunt, pale figure with a face that looks a little bit like skin-colored paint on a skull, and watery eyes that have been lit with a striking glow by Sobociński, aided and abetted by Bielenia's apparent disinterest in blinking.

But even if the way he has been visually incorporated into the movie gives Bielenia a head start, this is still a tremendous, uncomfortably potent performance. The script tells us that Daniel is motivated by a passion to become a priest so intense that it triumphs over everything else in his reality; Bielenia is the one who actually makes that passion seem tangible and real. If Corpus Christi is ultimately a film about desperately clinging to faith in order to give structure to an unstructured life, this performance, with all the wide-open staring and uncertain body language and awkward pauses and a very visible process of Daniel digging into his guts to find a way to act confident in the faith of pure, all-encompassing doubt, this is where the desperation comes in. The film would have been intellectually interesting either way, I think; Bielenia makes it emotionally engaging, and that's what makes this something more special than the checklist of its plot points and settings would indicate.




*The first four being the preordained winner Parasite, the major auteur work Pain and Glory, the critically-acclaimed documentary Honeyland, and the thematically timely Cannes prize-winner Les Misérables.