Religion in secular film is a tricky line to walk. The idolization must be clear within the art; the motives to follow some unseen doctrine must be understandable, yet it must not beg us to understand too. The latter becomes preaching, is essentially propaganda, and takes a film from a story to a sermon. In order to walk this line, a film must keep a distance, and leave the protagonist’s belief in a fantasy pocket of the mind, akin to the supernatural. The divine must be left as such to prevent the pressure of religion, and Jan Komasz‘s Corpus Christi, Poland’s Oscar submission, does just that. We are able to see the power that Christianity holds for these characters, but we are never asked to believe in it ourselves.
20-year-old Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) is released from prison to enter the workforce. His time while incarcerated has left him a new man, or perhaps a man for the first time. Able to connect with the idea of god while he’s there allows him to become closer to his own morality, and begin to forgive others for their sins, if not himself. He wants to be a priest, hoping to help others feel what he felt and to help them come out of that dark place. Sadly, his criminal record means he’ll never be allowed to, so he is sent off to work in a small town as a carpenter.
Donning a priest robe, a moment akin to a child playing dress up (a rare reminder that he is scarcely a man yet), Daniel is mistaken for a priest, and leads a sermon in the local church. His passion is igniting, they are unified by the fire and care he puts in to what he says. By the end, he removes his robe, and finds the usual preacher is on leave. Here begins a new journey for the young man, as he is able to help others connect with what helped him. His preaching is not to the audience in movie theater chairs, but the village people listening readily for something to latch onto.
It all falls apart with the return of reality. Daniel is forced to confront his own sins before the congregation, as he is unable to truly help others be better if he has done so much himself. His confession is jarring, the man that had been so gentle and open with love and passion to the people has revealed himself to be hiding. None of the technical aspects are particularly flashy, but the veristic, cool-toned cinematography adds a loneliness that coincides with his life. This is the second year in a row that Poland has not only made the shortlist, but gone all the way to the nomination stage. In great contrast to 2018’s sweeping romantic epic Cold War, Corpus Christi is a psychological study, one that revels in the healing of one instead of the distanced music between two.
It’s only inevitable that the film made it this far. The Academy leans heavily European in the choices for the International Feature Category. They tend to vote for dramas, usually male-centered, that touch on some sort of social relevance. Not only does Corpus Christi dive in to the power of religion, but it bears a strong message about justice. We must emphasize with the prisoner and realize that one can grow, change and learn from their mistakes. Daniel being barred from priesthood is a lesson to him as punishment, but is also a show of how we treat the formerly incarcerated as inferior, even once time has been served. It is a shame that the story of this vein that has resonated with the Academy is one of a white man told by a white man, when this problem is so pervasive in America with its racial prejudices added in, but it is a step in the right direction as empathy is beginning, even if just for the same demographic that is highlighting these films. It is unfortunate that films from one perspective are still highlighted even in a category meant to open up worldwide recognition, but it is at least progress that the messages of empathy are there.