Believe it or not, besides Parasite, there have been other films nominated for this year’s International Feature Film Academy award. Though the Korean film stole the show (and most of the Oscars that night), four other films vied for the One Prize of the Night, awarded to the country submitting the film. Spain sent in Pedro Almodovar’s pain and fame; Honeyland (from Macedonia) made history as the first film to be nominated in Best Documentary. France inexplicably picked Les Miserables (though the portrait of a woman on fire is a formidable film); and Poland snuck into the last five nominations with Corpus Christi, a film about faith, fellowship, and the efforts we will make to escape our past.
Directed by Jan Komasa and written by Mateusz Pacewicz, Bartosz Bielenia plays Daniel, an inmate in a juvenile detention center who has found God. His renewed faith leads him through difficult judgment and piques his interest in becoming a priest when he drops out. But the church will not have any ex-disadvantages in the clergy. When his sentence is up, Daniel will be taken by bus to a small town with a sawmill, where he will have a decent job and version of a life on the clergy outside. His first stop is the local church, where he meets Eliza (Eliza Rycembel) and just can’t help each other: he tells her he is a priest, she believes him, and soon he is wearing the holy robes, living in the rectory of the church and provides mass for a congregation whose regular priest has settled in the city.
The trick is easy enough to keep up with first; Daniel’s beliefs are real, as is his enthusiasm for serving the community in this spiritual role. He’s a bit clunky at first and fiddles through a few rounds of confession until he gets the hang of giving advice and solutions. But parishioners have no reason to rethink it, and even the church’s longtime caretaker Lidia (Aleksandra Konieczna) is starting to accept this young upstart as one of her own. Daniel, in turn, gets to know the locals better, including Eliza and her friends, with whom he socializes like any 20-year-old, and a group of parents he sees gathered on a bulletin board (with a selection of photos on it) every day in the city. They pray for their lost loved ones, a group of teenagers who were killed after a long night of partying by a drunk driver – another local who was also killed in the accident.
Bielenia’s magnetic feat, all piercing eyes and daring energy, gives the film a vitality and masculinity not normally associated with the clergy. From working shirtless on church grounds to steamy scenes later in the film, Corpus Christi is surprisingly sexy, even as it approaches more serious questions about lies, redemption, and the way we and don’t connect with each other. With really good intentions, Daniel tries to balance the tensions between the survivors of the accident and the driver’s widow. Elsewhere, he runs into the owner of the sawmill he is supposed to work at when the owner starts snooping on the truth about Daniel’s identity.
Most notably, Pacewicz’s story (apparently based on actual events) encompasses the intricate nature of any life fully lived, the contradictions inherent in human experience. Choices have consequences, and the past is never really that far off as both the grieving lost loved ones and Daniel, who does his best to be someone new, know all too well. Kusama stages the film at a comfortable distance, leaving Daniel space to grow into his newfound piety and to give us insights into the criminal who went to prison in the first place. Of course, his past will and will catch up with him in the small town that embraces him and his disrespectful version of belief.
Corpus Christi more than deserves its place among the other nominees for best international feature film, even if most people didn’t even know it was there. The combination of a rousing performance by Bielenia and a story ready to explore the intricate relationships with one another makes it a film worth looking for.
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