If you were paying attention to this year’s Oscars’ and its renamed Best International Film section — a category that could’ve easily been redubbed “Parasite, and Four Other Films Which Aren’t Parasite” — you might have spotted an outlier in the lineup. There was Bong Joon Ho’s juggernaut of a movie; a late-career masterpiece from Spanish maestro Pedro Almodóvar (Pain and Glory); an Amazon-sponsored French policier (Les Misérables); a poetic documentary on the lost art of rural beekeeping (Honeyland). And then there was some Polish film with a Latin name, a latecomer to the race that arrived with virtually no fanfare and a title that suggested it had something to do with either Catholicism or South Texas.
It’s the former, by the way, and once you’ve seen Corpus Christi, filmmaker Jan Komasa’s fake-it-til-you-make-it drama, you understand why voters chose to slot this shortlisted entry in among the better-known titles. A loose yet surprisingly deft take on a real-life phenomenon in Poland, it starts with a young man keeping watch while a prison beatdown takes place. His name is Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia). We don’t know why he ended up in this Warsaw juvenile detention center — yet — but we know he’s about to be released on parole. We know that the timing of his exit is fortuitous, since there’s a brutish thug, new to the cellblock, who wants him dead. Most importantly, we know that Daniel has found solace in Christianity during his time inside, and would like nothing more than to join the seminary after having served his time. Except felons aren’t eligible to become men of the cloth, he’s told. He’ll have to find contentment not as a preacher but as a parishioner.
Still, Daniel swipes a holy man’s black-on-black outfit, indulges a post-freedom night of debauchery and heads to a small town way out east, where a sawmill job awaits him. Before reporting for work, he stops at the local church. The only other person in the mostly empty chapel is Eliza (Eliza Rycembel). She’s suspicious of this stranger. Impulsively, Daniel lies that he’s a priest. Then let me introduce you to the vicar, she replies. Soon, the ex-convict is putting on the collar, taking confessions and saying mass. Facade or not, it turns out he’s a natural when it comes to comforting and inspiring his congregation. There’s also the matter of a memorial in the middle of town, which hints at a collective trauma that the populace has yet to recover from and a deeper sin that needs to be dealt with.
Most cynics [raises hand] would expect a swift left turn into feel-good storytelling, complete with the resident haters getting their comeuppance, laughter, tears, the true meaning of Christmas and maybe a pop-song singalong (“Faith,” perhaps?) — Sister Act with an accent, basically. Even if you’re familiar with Komasa’s straight-down-the-middle previous work (we recommend Warsaw ’44), you assume that surely this was nominated for an Oscar because it played up to the saccharine sweet spot of the Academy’s notoriously conservative foreign-language committee, right?
So it’s a shock when, instead of detouring into familiar territory, Corpus Christi doubles down on the dourness and refuses to play the easy uplift game. Yes, Daniel will prove to doubters that he’s earned the right to wear the frock, old wounds will start to heal and his past will eventually catch up to him. But the route that the movie takes to those plot points is unexpected, to say the least. This is a movie that doesn’t want to coddle an audience so much as challenge it. It wants you to think about what redemption really means, who doles out and who deserves penance, and what part a pastor truly plays in regards to responsibly shepherding his flock. It wants you to see the value in a religion’s emphasis on second chances without devolving into doctrine-stumping. It preaches without being preachy.
Apologies if this makes the movie sound like it’s the equivalent of self-flagellation. It isn’t. There are moments of deadpan humor spread throughout, especially when Daniel is forced to learn sacred rituals on the fly — thank god for cellphones — and some of his impromptu sermons veer off the beaten path. And Corpus Christi is definitely blessed (sorry) with a hell of a charismatic lead in Bielenia, a blue-eyed actor with a matinee-idol good looks, an intense stare and light comic chops. You believe he’s a young screw-up who’s made mistakes and found peace in spirituality, while still dancing to shitty techno as he works on his motorcycle. Once he finds his groove regarding his calling, you can also see why people would look to him for guidance, and other things. He’s your new Hot Priest, Eastern European Division.
If the movie sometimes adds elements that feel like too much, too little — a subplot involving the sawmill’s owner feels superfluous even when it gets things from point B to point C — and occasionally gets wobbly in balancing the dark and the light, it also knows when to keep things lean and, in the case of its third-act thrusts and parries, mean. Corpus Christi doesn’t skimp on the humanity; the film earns the slow smiles it brings to your face. But it also has its eyes on a different endgame than you think it does regarding this white lie, and by the time the movie decides to come full circle, it’s setting up a climactic shot that’s a 100-watt jolt. It also somehow makes perfect sense. Salvation isn’t a final destination. It’s a journey.