Corpus Christi, as you may have heard, is based on the true story of a young Polish man sent off to a work camp/halfway house designated by the youth detention center he’d been living in for the past few years. Rather than doing that, Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) pretends to be a priest in order to take refuge overnight in a small town a couple miles from the work camp, only to wind up as their primary clergy after their main priest has to make himself unavailable. The fact he was in juvie is enough to automatically disqualify him from actually entering the priesthood once his sentence allows for it, even if we don’t know right away what he’s imprisoned for. Daniel may be looking for a way to sneak into the priesthood, but all things considered, he would be much happier to do so in another town, perhaps one much much farther from all the local authorities and juvie inmates who could blow his cover on sight, to say nothing of the religious townsfolk who may be wondering if this unorthodox, newly arrived clergyman is who he says he is.
It’s never entirely clear how much Daniel sincerely believes in God. Yes, part of why he became religious in prison surely has to do with the protection afforded to him under the wing of the priest there, but the way he’s drawn to the priesthood, his commitment to an occupation he has absolutely no obligation to uphold once he has the opportunity to abandon it, shows his devotion to be more than just an act. Corpus Christi quickly situates itself in the murkiness that lurks between Daniel’s sincerity and the lawless, mercenary actions he uses in order to achieve what he wants or rebel against others. What is the gap between the seemingly devout actions he takes on behalf of the parish and his motivations for doing them? Is he opening fresh wounds for his own satisfaction, or is he genuinely interested in saving this town’s soul? How much are the townspeople even interested in the reconciliations he’s trying to mediate?
The film does a savory job parsing so many gray areas, not just in Daniel’s behavior but in the hypocrisies of the parish he’s suddenly charged with. Corpus Christi’s most central and perhaps most daring thread revolves around a public memorial for several recently and tragically deceased citizens, where the circumstances surrounding those deaths and the recriminations directed and the person whose image has not been added to the memorial are viciously felt. Daniel starts attending the regular vigils held by the families of the dead, working with them to confront and make peace with their grief while trying to find a way to do right by the ostracized members of the community. This, somewhat understandably, does not go down well with the rest of the town, but Corpus Christi defty handles these confrontations and escalations by keeping them from falling into predictable arcs. The film has an innate gift for scripting unusual rhythms into its story threads. Buildups and resolutions frequently culminate in unexpected ways, such that we’re never sure how Daniel or the townspeople will move forward in any given scene. Even overfamiliar storylines like a blackmailing figure from Daniel’s past get recuperated by the trajectories they ultimately take, though it’s a shame his relationship with the agnostic, rebellious Marta (Eliza Rycembel) seems so predictable compared to everything else.
If anything really hinders the complexity of Corpus Christi’s odd, volatile story, it’s Janus Komasa’s direction, which never finds the right balance between playing things semi-straight and plugging into the script’s nervier ironies. The supporting cast comes across as surprisingly under-directed, with so many actors stuck giving the same faces of bewilderment and skepticism. Aleksandria Konieczna, as the church’s suspicious sexton and Marta’s domineering mother, seems the most obvious emblem of Komasa’s lack of direction, stuck giving the same, skeptical face for the entire film. Moments like a woman slapping someone in the face after being handed an incriminating letter, or a door slamming in Daniel’s face, jolt the film awake with the specificity and outrage of their indictments as well as giving Bielenia something to really play against. For a film premised entirely on how to scrutinize the blurry line between performative behavior and the emotions behind them, it’s a real disadvantage not to utilize most of its scrutinizers to any real effect.
Bartosz Bielenia’s lead performance, which has already been awarded Best Actor prizes from the Stockholm International Film Festival and the Chicago International Film Festival, further embodies the confluence of complex morality, insinuating ideas, and uneven execution tying Corpus Christi together. A handsome, charismatic presence, emanating big Slav Nic Hoult energy with his expressively large eyes and chiseled, pale white-boy handsomeness, Bielenia pitches his dishonest youth in a quiet, observant key, fully aware of how to see and use other people while showing the audience how threatening or unsure of himself Daniel so often is. You see how he’s able to earn the enclave’s trust and sell this new version of himself so persuasively, wielding the charms he’s honed in prison for years in service of his own religious devotions.
Still, even if the film and actor don’t flatten how many layers of performative behavior and genuine honesty Daniel is acting on at any given moment, the quietness of Bielenia’s playing occasionally feels as though he’s failing to take advantage of the many layers in the role as written. He’s as much a victim of neglect from Komasa as anyone else, even if the vagueness of the character allows some room for audience projection and individual interpretation harder to imagine if he was overplaying. But some of Bielenia’s best moments, like expressing frustration at being suddenly handed a job he has no idea how to do, resonate for directly connecting to his dual status as a runaway prisoner and an inexperienced priest, flying by the seat of his pants either way. Such layered expressions feel somewhat rarer than they should, and it would’ve been interesting to see him risk slightly louder or more candid notes than the restrictive ones he’s so often stuck giving.
It certainly helps Corpus Christi to end on perhaps its most intense notes, leaving its characters with the opportunity to explore entirely new possibilities for themselves. If you’ve been captivated with the film throughout, it’s a dark summation of everything leading up to this moment, as the townspeople stake tentative new grounds towards understanding each other while Daniel’s life takes a different, violently new direction than it had up til now; If you had problems with it, as I did, it’s still a startling conclusion that doesn’t quite alleviate the sense of there being an even more provocative version of this story buried underneath the movie we got. I’m not especially surprised to see Corpus Christi get nominated at the Oscars, given the strength of its best scenes, and the star-is-born narrative Bielenia has been receiving, both in his native Poland and abroad. Yes, I miss seeing Atlantics in International Film, a film that boasts visual, generic, and thematic imaginations far beyond what Corpus Christi even tries to achieve. But Corpus Christi, for all its flaws, is an often electrifying treatise on a very strange young man, one that can compel an audience just as strongly and questionably as he can lead a parish.