According to that famous former nun, Karen Armstrong: “The great sages of religion have always said that you don’t start out deciding metaphysical questions about the existence of God or the viability of the resurrection. You first live in a certain way.”
Polish director, Jan Komasa, provides a dramatic illustration of this idea in Corpus Christi, which tells the story of Daniel, a young hoodlum who is paroled from juvenile detention and finds himself impersonating a priest in a small village. It’s both a deception and a moment of revelation, although we know it’s doomed to failure.
Bartosz Bielenia’s performance in the lead role is breathtaking. With his crew cut, lean features and pale blue eyes he gives the constant impression of an intensity that can barely be held in check. Whether that nervy energy finds an outlet in drunkenness and violence, or in a passion for Catholic ritual, there’s no hint of caution or hesitation.
It’s purely coincidental that Sydney readers can go along to the Randwick Ritz this weekend and see another excellent religious drama: Jean-Pierre Melville’s Léon Morin, Priest (1961), which features Jean-Paul Belmondo as a young, crusading Catholic clergyman. There are points of comparison with Corpus Christi, but where Léon is an intellectual, Daniel is virtually a savage.
Komasa’s movie begins in a brutal juvenile prison in Warsaw, where inmates are routinely beaten and victimised by their peers. The resident priest, Father Tomasz (Łukasz Simlat), takes a rough and ready approach to his duties, knowing these boys are hard cases. “Each of us is a priest of Christ,” he tells his flock. Daniel takes him literally. Upon release his deepest desire is to enter a seminary and study for the priesthood, but Father Tomasz tells him this is impossible for a young man with a criminal record.
Daniel’s compensation is a purloined priest’s dog collar that he carries around and wears in front of the mirror. He has this fetish in his bag when he travels to an isolated, rural community where he is expected to take up a job at the local saw mill. One look at the mill is enough to put him off. Instead, he goes into town and sits in the church, where he meets a girl named Marta (Eliza Rycembel) whose mother turns out to be the sexton.
He says he’s a priest, and when she calls his bluff, produces the dog collar. This proves to be such compelling evidence he’s taken to meet the local incumbent (Zdzislaw Wardejn). It seems he’s come along at the right time, as the elderly priest has to go into hospital (presumably to dry out), which means that Daniel – who calls himself “Father Tomasz”, will be required to take on his duties.
A penchant for acting first and thinking later has landed Daniel in this tricky predicament, just as it landed him in prison. He has to swot up on the Internet about how to conduct Confession and other services. His sermons are brief and wildly unconventional, but get a positive response. He begins to enjoy the job and make friends in the community. As he settles into his new identity he becomes more devout, more uncompromising in his sense of right and wrong. He lectures the mill-owner on the evils of greed, and takes it upon himself to heal a wound that has torn the village apart, as they mourn a car-load of young people killed in an accident.
While improving his relationship with God, Daniel still enjoys hanging out with a young crowd, and hasn’t lost his taste for alcohol or sex. His religious zeal is free of dogma and moral platitudes. It translates into a sharply defined sense of justice that sees nothing sinful in a little self-indulgence, but takes a strong line against hypocrisy and oppression.
His congregation warms to Daniel’s up-front approach and he responds to their appreciation, but there is no way this priestly caper can be sustained. I won’t reveal what happens in the last chapters but Komasa and scriptwriter Mateusz Pecewicz give us a truly powerful ending that resonates long after we leave the cinema.
Corpus Christi is a film about faith – the hollow, ‘bad faith’ routines of institutional religion, as represented by the old village priest who merely goes through the motions, versus the passionate newfound faith that animates Daniel, the young imposter. By not accepting felons such as Daniel as trainee priests, even if they have a vocation, the Church stands revealed as a bourgeois institution chiefly concerned with its own power and image. There is no Christian charity or forgiveness for a sinner who wants to change his ways.
It’s an even greater irony that by playing the priest Daniel is committing one mortal sin after another, while actively striving to do good. He is emulating Jesus in his actions as he trashes the rules and codes of the Catholic Church. He doesn’t struggle with metaphysical problems, or agonise about whether God exists, he has learned to “live in a certain way”. Everything else follows from this new way of life, with its sense of moral and spiritual responsibility for a community.
We’ve grown accustomed to associating religion with the most rigid forms of social conservatism, but true religious experience is profoundly transformative. Whether through contemplation or – as in Daniel’s case – radical action, religious faith prompts us to ask difficult questions about ourselves and our way of living in the world. In Corpus Christi, Daniel’s highly physical version of pastoral care sparks a transformation in the community. He has demonstrated – to them and to us – that faith is not the membership of a club but something that burns within.
Directed by Jan Komasa
Written by Mateusz Pacewicz
Starring Bartosz Bielenia, Eliza Rycembel, Aleksandra Konieczna, Leszek Lichota, Łukasz Simlat, Tomasz Ziętek,
Barbara Kurzaj, Zdzisław Wardejn
Poland/France, rated MA15+, 116 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 24 October, 2020