Wednesday, April 1, 2020

False Prophet: Corpus Christi

Bartosz Bielenia in Corpus Christi (Boze Cialo).

Did you know that Poland has a fake priest problem? You’d think parishioners would catch on pretty quickly, but apparently some of these impersonators are sincere in their ministries, lacking only the credentials. What would drive someone to be a sincere fake priest? How might they handle their duties? Corpus Christi (Boże Cialo), a religious high-wire act based on a true story, offers one tantalizing example.

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and a repressed and unforgivingly moralistic society calls for an infusion of faith. Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) finds God while serving time in juvenile detention, but upon parole, the jail’s Father Tomasz (Łukasz Simlat) tells him with no sense of irony that seminaries don’t take felons. Daniel heads out to the backwoods sawmill where a menial job and social stigma await. Instead of reporting for duty, though, he’s drawn by the sound of church bells to the nearby village. A small white lie to save face, involving a stolen clerical collar, quickly snowballs, and he finds himself the parish’s substitute priest – calling himself Father Tomasz in homage – while the vicar (Zdzislaw Wardejn) goes to the city for a health check-up.

Daniel’s first chat with the vicar sets the tone for the first half of the film, and showcases the stellar script by Mateusz Pacewicz. The vicar asks some questions in a casual chat to get to know this new itinerant priest, questions such as what seminary he went to, and we get to see Daniel wield his street smarts, hedging and fudging and taking the plunge on one key lie that he miraculously gets right. Bielenia’s performance is at once innocent, wily, resourceful, and filled with good intentions, and when you add in his soulful blue eyes, the audience is in the palm of his hands. It helps, too, that we don’t know the crime for which he was convicted.

His first duty is not a full Mass – thank God – but taking Confession, and he navigates his way through the sacrament with the help of his smartphone’s internet. The penance he gives out to the first parishioner to confess, a woman who beats her twelve-year-old son for smoking while she herself secretly smokes, is to have her get him to quit by forcing him to smoke a pack of strong cigarettes (the classic method) and then take him on a bike ride. This unorthodox approach will come to define his priesthood, out of both necessity and a deep wellspring of love.

And maybe something more. Daniel’s first Mass is cribbed from one of Father Tomasz’s, but his later sermons are electrifying, going straight for the hard stuff: greed, sin, humility, forgiveness, love. When called upon to deliver Last Rites in the dead of night, he of course has no idea what to do; when the bedroom door closes on just him and a dying grandma, his choice of words seem, well, inspired. He clasps her hand and says, “You will not die!” just before she fades away. The wide and dramatic angles of director Jan Komasa, and the dusty-musty-grainy-dense images from cinematographer Piotr Sobociński, Jr., seem to confirm that we are witnessing a Higher Power.

Bartosz Bielenia and Eliza Rycembel in in Corpus Christi (Boze Cialo).

As Daniel starts to realize that not only is he getting away with it (despite some people’s suspicions), he’s actually doing some good, he begins to contemplate a more active role than mere caretaker. The community has recently suffered the tragedy of a driver colliding head-on with a van of six youths and killing everyone, including himself. The blood tests were all clean, so the police declared it an accident, but in Poland nobody trusts the police; rather, the magnitude of loss decided who was at fault, and the driver’s widow (Barbara Kurzaj) was ostracized. Not even the vicar was willing to help.

That doesn’t sit right with Daniel. He reaches out to the widow and, when he learns that the mourners send her hate mail, turns around to chastise the bullies. He mounts a campaign to include the driver in the makeshift roadside memorial and bury his remains in the parish, backed up by one of his most heartfelt sermons. By this point in the film, the original dread of the other shoe dropping whenever Daniel meets someone new has, by the grace of God, been transformed into indignation at the thought that anyone would dare question his moral authority.

The film becomes a critique of religious institutional authority and all its ties to worldly power – in spirit, a Protestant film. If, following Jesus’ example, holiness comes from suffering, and if that’s the reason priests must suffer celibacy, detachment, and theology lectures, then wouldn’t someone who survives a life of suffering be uniquely qualified? The film seems to be saying that, in pursuit of dogmatic consistency and institutional authority, the Catholic Church has inordinately sacrificed charisma and mystery, which were key for the early Church Fathers.

It also includes some light criticism of clerical celibacy, giving us a tender yet erotic sex scene between Daniel and Marta (Eliza Rycembel), ally in Daniel’s crusade for merciful justice and daughter of the sexton, Lidia (Aleksandra Konieczna), who opposes his campaign and suspects his identity. Rycembel is somehow spunky, empathetic, tortured, and defiant, all buried beneath a stereotypically repressed Eastern European demeanor. We guess from the beginning that she and Daniel will form a pair, but it’s never obvious how it’ll come to pass; when it does, we’ve almost forgotten our initial inkling. And it doesn’t change their daily interactions. It’s just another manifestation of Daniel’s deep love for people.

The other shoe does, eventually, drop. When he’s backed into a corner, necessity again inspires Daniel to take a divinely inspired way out: in contrast to the bodily mortification that concludes Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. Daniel bares his torso to reveal the jail tats that show that he has already paid a physical price. The accompanying diegetic prerecorded organ music is a bit too much, but then Schrader did something similar, too. (The music here is by Evgueni and Sacha Galperine.)

However, this melodramatic gesture doesn’t save Daniel from going back into the slammer, where a costlier physical price is exacted from him before: anointed in blood, he’s finally allowed to carry out his own ministry in his own name. We don’t know what that will look like, but the holy fire in his eyes, channeling an awful yet loving God, may offer a clue.

CJ Sheu is a PhD student of contemporary American fiction at National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.

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