Corpus Christi (Boże Ciało) tells the story of a young parolee with startling eyes getting out of juvie and winding up posing as a priest in a small lumber town, but here’s the trick: he’s genuinely devout and really good at his job, unconventional but with this very intent inspiration to heal, despite the brutality that still follows him, even within himself. And ultimately, the movie might mostly be about a community trying to process their collective grief over a deadly accident that occurred the year before.
This marks the third Polish film I’ve seen, as well as the third Polish film I’ve loved—the cinema of Poland is truly batting a thousand here!
The others I’ve watched were both Paweł Pawlikowskis, shot by his masterful cinematographer Łukasz Żal in beautiful boxy black & white. Corpus Christi, meanwhile, is green—green trees and fields around this little town, green vestments on ‘Father Tomasz’ at mass, and this green quality to the very light itself, seeping in cool like a stream through curtained windows. It’s not a Guillermo Del Toro green or a Park Chan-Wook green, it’s lighter and waterier than that. It’s pretty. “This is a pretty movie,” I remarked quietly. Which isn’t to say it’s soft. What I mean is: in the very first shot, the gaunt, watchful face of our protagonist suddenly fills the frame, starkly lit in the daylight coming through a window, while something violent happens out of focus behind him.
He’s incredible by the way, this young actor. He has an absolutely astonishing ability to go still, ringing like a single held note. Two different times watching him I momentarily wondered if my video had paused, but before I could tear my eyes away to check, he moved again.
There was one plot line that I don’t think really served anything or anyone by following its traditional path, and it would certainly have been a more interesting work if that part had been remained more unexpected, as it seemed it might. There was another moment where I felt as if the script suddenly doubted its ability to write the right speech—admittedly maybe a bit of a Two Towers situation where they realized they’d written themselves into a corner—and sure it’s easy for me to sit here and say ey you should have just gone for it!, because not everyone’s gonna end up with Sam Gamgee’s “It’s like the great stories” speech, but up until that point there had been so much clear yet compellingly enigmatic shit they’d written for that kid that he just sold the heck out of, that I think any words would have been more powerful than their choice to go with none there, just gesture. As powerful as gesture can sometimes be as well. And ultimately this is backhanded compliment because what I’m really saying is I wished every moment could have been as strong as most of them are.
Because maybe we’re in a golden age of priest fictions right now with works like First Reformed and Fleabag and Paolo Sorrentino’s Pope shows all coming out in recent years, but what I was so into with Corpus Christi was that it’s not that filmmaker Jan Komasa just picked “priest” out of a hat as Daniel’s fake profession, a backdrop to the real story he wanted to tell. This movie is fundamentally about concepts of forgiveness and atonement, as they interrelate across criminality, church, and community, and there is a complexity in what is emotionally resolved in the narrative and what is left quite jarringly inconclusive.