NEW YORK—Polish films on Catholic themes run the gamut of taste.
On one side is 2013’s exquisite “Ida” in which the novice nun of the title (Agata Trzebuchowska) learns that, although raised Catholic, she’s really Jewish, a discovery that leads her on a search for her family roots. The other extreme is 2018’s “Kler” (“The Clergy”), a bawdy satire about alcoholic, sexually rampant priests.
“Corpus Christi” (Film Movement; streaming venues are available at: https://www.filmmovement.com/corpus-christi) registers as belonging to the raunchier side of that scale.
It’s a conundrum. The movie, Oscar-nominated in the best international film category, takes Christian faith seriously, which puts it on a par with 2018’s “First Reformed.” But its often-cynical portrayal of the priesthood and the faithful may disturb many.
Unlike an American film with a religious-chicanery plot (1992’s “Sister Act” and the 1989 version of “We’re No Angels” come to mind), there’s no sentimental ending. In fact, “Corpus Christi” concludes as violently as it begins.
It’s rooted in a known phenomenon in Poland in which young men impersonated priests, mostly for the perceived financial benefit, for at least brief periods in rural communities where no one was too inquisitive.
This makes it a challenge for Catholic audiences. Director Jan Komasa and screenwriter Mateusz Pacewicz, who reworked his book about imposter priests, tell the grim story of 20-year-old Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia). Just paroled from a juvenile detention facility, Daniel, having found his faith there as an altar server, wishes to enter a seminary and become a priest.
It’s not made terribly clear, but his offense was second-degree murder, and the dialogue gives the impression that drug abuse was a contributing factor.
His criminal past makes the priesthood an impossibility, and Daniel’s unhappy about being sent to a remote community a considerable distance away, where he’s been assigned work in a sawmill.
The nearby church holds far more appeal and, while stopping there briefly to pray, he gets into a conversation with a young woman, Eliza (Eliza Rycembel), who seems to think he might be a priest assigned to help the alcoholic local pastor (Zdzislaw Wardejn).
Daniel produces a clerical collar he stole from the prison chaplain, and he’s quickly, to his horror, drawn into his own fakery. He’s violating parole, so the moment he’s discovered, he’ll be serving the rest of his sentence.
Even the pastor doesn’t ask a lot of questions and, since he didn’t attend the same seminary Daniel claims to have graduated from, the illusion continues and the story takes on the qualities of a fable. When the real clergyman takes a leave of absence for treatment, Daniel has to take over all the parish responsibilities.
The middle third of the film changes tone completely. Despite a bumpy start hearing confessions (a phone app helps), Daniel, as Father Tomasz — he’s also stolen the chaplain’s name, and his initial homily is something recalled from his prison days — is compassionate and courageous, and parish life provides him with the first comfortable existence he’s known.
The community also has an urgent need for such a priest. A drunk driver killed six residents and himself, and the mourning of the families has not ceased. Daniel has to help them through their pain and find a solution to their shunning of the driver’s widow, since the pastor refused to bury him in the church cemetery. He also stands up to the mayor-sawmill owner, who wants the tragedy quickly forgotten.
At one point, Daniel even defends celibacy, saying that, if those are the rules, one must conform. He’s very much the model cleric, which makes the ending all the more tragic.
The deception eventually unravels, and Daniel is shown to still be very prone to outbursts of violence, despite his spiritual transformation.
The misguided idea presented here, from a Catholic perspective, is that priestly authority originates with the congregation and not with sacramental ordination by a bishop in the line of apostolic succession. More mundanely, there’s also the always-disturbing notion that good intentions can cover for a decided lack of consistent expertise.
Whether the parishioners are merely dupes is not examined. But Komasa explores their grief with a commendable sensitivity.
In Polish. Subtitles.
The film contains religious themes requiring mature discernment, some bloody violence, two nonmarital sexual encounters, brief male rear nudity, drug use and frequent rough language. The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. Not rated by Motion Picture Association.