The Best International Feature Film Oscar, formerly titled “Best Foreign Language Film,” is going to Korea’s “Parasite” this year. Bong Joon Ho’s social satire is the closest this thing year’s Academy Awards have to a sure thing.
But Poland’s entry in the category, “Corpus Christi,” is a minor miracle in and of itself. Warm and faith-affirming, predictable — with just enough edge — it’s a bracing delight in the middle of decades of stories of Catholic Priests Behaving Badly.
Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) is a hollow-eyed, hollowed-out young man finishing up his term in a Polish juvenile detention center. He goes along to get along with the awful routines there, standing watch while the prison toughs carry out sexual assaults, dreading the return of a thug who has a murderous grudge against him.
Sunday morning Mass is his break from routine. Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat) lets him help set up the service and relies on him to sing the Twenty-third Psalm every week.
But that dream Daniel has about the seminary is misguided, at best. He’s not the type, we think. Father Tomasz reminds him (in Polish, with English subtitles) that “no seminary takes ex-convicts” like him. No, the job at a distant sawmill is the best he can hope for upon release.
As if to make the good Father’s point, Daniel swipes a clergical collar, shirt and outfit when he checks out. He ducks into town long enough for a sex, drugs, punk-rock and booze binge, and boards the bus.
But his long walk from the bus to the mill lets us see his despair at this future. Everybody he meets guesses his story — ex-con, sawmill bound. His quick look-over the place firms his resolve that it’s not for him.
Becoming a fake priest? That happens by accident. He ducks into the local church, misses the final mass of the day, and when the pretty daughter (Eliza Rycembel) asks him what he does as he assures her he is NOT working in the mill, he improvises.
“I’m a priest.”
“And I’M a nun!”
Nothing impresses the ladies like a collar. Father uh, TOMASZ he calls himself, lying just well enough to pass muster with the aged vicar (Zdzislaw Wardejn), who basically invents his story with the questions he asks”Father Tomasz.”
He’s just out of seminary, and he’s on a wandering pilgrimage through the parishes of Poland. Come, help me with mass. Hey, I’m not feeling well, take confessions for me, wouldya?
Director Jan Komosa and screenwriter Mateusz Pacewicz trot Daniel and the viewer through a lot of predictably adorable “learn to be a priest on the fly” gags — Googling “How to take confession” on his smart phone, etc.
But Daniel, who won’t talk about why he was in prison, told this lie for a reason. You can’t call it a “calling,” but something about the robes, the responsibilities and the power of the position intoxicates him. As he’s parroting the last sermon we heard Father Tomasz give to the inmates in the prison, Daniel gets carried away.
And so does “Corpus Christi.”
Because for all the lighter touches, the predictable stations of the cross of such movies (fear of discovery, romantic temptation, “tests”), this is a town still in mourning for a terrible car accident that took several of its young people.
People are hurting, and hurting each other with blame. Daniel’s tossing common sense in the Confessional, and at Mass. How hard can healing this rift be?
Bielenia beautifully pitches his performance to match Daniel’s state — hollow-eyed and hollowed-out at first, with the ex-con’s avoid-eye-contact condition — beatific, self-righteous and cocky as the circles clear up under his eyes, he finds his purpose and starts to flex his priestly muscles.
He’s “the cool young priest” who can drink beer and smoke with “the kids,” and he’s noticing the lovely, sad Eliza (who lost friends in the wreck) noticing him.
I found the entire enterprise a touching, rough-hewn delight, never sparing us the explicit sex and violence of Daniel’s life “before,” moist-eyed in seeing how his “outside the collar” thinking is a tonic for a tortured town that needs to move on.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, strong sexual content, profanity, alcohol abuse and smoking.
Cast: Bartosz Bielenia, Aleksandra Konieczna, Eliza Rycembel
Credits: Directed by Jan Komosa, script by Mateusz Pacewicz
Running time: 1:55