Streaming: True confessions, false prophet in ‘Corpus Christi’
How long could you impersonate a Catholic priest in a rural village before the populace found you out? Watch “Corpus Christi” (2019) to see one man give it a whirl. Sure, a lot of the role is the outfits and the Hail Marys, but what else do you need to do to convince people?
We meet a young Polish delinquent named Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) in a juvenile detention facility where he leads a bracing life. In one moment, he’s compelled to serve as a lookout while a man is brutally assaulted, the next he takes the pulpit in the prison church room and sings like an angel. The prison’s Father Tomasz (Łukasz Simlat) intones, “Each of us is a priest of God,” but it turns out the seminary won’t accept a criminal like Daniel, so he’s shipped off to a distant hamlet where the formerly incarcerated work at a saw mill.
Upon arrival, Daniel visits the town church and, because he’s reluctant to admit that he’s working at the sawmill, he blurts out, “I’m a priest.” Soon he’s being introduced to Father Wojciech (Zdzisław Wardejn), who quickly summarizes his parishioners: “Many people, few believers” (the townspeople are fractured by a tragedy in which six young people were killed in a car accident). Like his neighbors, Wojciech downs liquor at a liver-eviscerating rate and he soon needs a few weeks to dry out. Suddenly, Daniel is the next man up— he has a black shirt with a priest’s collar after all. The sexton, Lidia (Aleksandra Konieczna), seems to do most of the work to keep the church running, and her daughter, Marta (Eliza Rycembel), takes an immediate interest in the young clergyman that isn’t purely chaste.
While never a comedy, “Corpus Christi” has its funny moments, as when Daniel googles “guide to confession” as his first guest steps into the booth. When another penitent gentleman can’t remember the protocol, Daniel doesn’t stand on ceremony, saying, “Don’t worry about it, shoot.” On Sundays, he speaks to the people with passion and directness, drawing larger and larger crowds, and even the occasional round of applause.
The town’s mayor (Leszek Lichota) excels in a small but telling role as a capitalist who views religion as a conduit for his own profit. He insists that Daniel must bless a new wing of the sawmill, which the mayor happens to own. While the imposter priest is able to turn the tables on the mayor at the sawmill, he also catches the eye of former bunkmates from juvie who split logs with a definite malevolence.
Bielenia delivers a fervent performance as the walls close in—at times, his crazed emerald eyes lend him an almost alien appearance (you might be reminded of Aaron Paul in his zanier moments of “Breaking Bad” as Daniel cycles through open-eyed innocence and incoherent rage).
Director Jan Komasa and his lead actor accomplish something unusual with “Corpus Christi.” They force us to consider what it means to be a priest, beyond serving as a codified figurehead at the front of the congregation. They ask the question: How can we possibly stay sane amidst the chaos all around us?