Believe it or not, there were other films besides Parasite nominated for this year’s International Feature Film Academy Award; even though the Korean film stole the show (and the most Oscars that night), four other films were vying for the one award of the night given to the country that submits the film. Spain sent in Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory; Honeyland (from Macedonia) made history as the first film to be nominated as in Best Documentary, too; France inexplicably selected Les Miserables (despite Portrait of a Lady on Fire being a wildly superior film); and Poland snuck into the final five nominees with Corpus Christi, a film about faith, community and the lengths we’ll go to escape our pasts.
Directed by Jan Komasa and written by Mateusz Pacewicz, Bartosz Bielenia stars as Daniel, an inmate at a youth detention center who’s found God; his renewed faith sees him through a difficult sentence, and piques his interest in becoming a priest when he gets out. But the church won’t have ex-cons in the clergy, so when his sentence is up, Daniel is shipped off by bus to a small town with a sawmill where he’ll have a decent job and some version of a life on the outside. His first stop is the local church, where he meets Eliza (Eliza Rycembel) and just can’t help himself: he tells her he’s a priest, she believes him, and soon he’s wearing the holy robes, living in the church rectory and delivering Mass to a community whose regular priest has decamped to the city.
The ruse is easy enough to keep up at first; Daniel’s faith is real, as is his enthusiasm for serving the community in this spiritual role. He’s a bit clunky at first, fumbling through a few rounds of confessions until he gets the hang of giving advice and resolution. But the community members have no reason to second-guess him, and even the church’s longtime caretaker, Lidia (Aleksandra Konieczna), begins to accept this young upstart as one of their own. Daniel, in turn, gets to know the locals better, including Eliza and her friends whom he socializes with like any twenty-year-old would, and a group of parents he sees gathered at a bulletin board (with a selection of photos on it) in town every day. They’re praying for their lost loved ones, a group of teenagers who were killed by a drunk driver—another local man who also died in the crash—after a long night of partying.
Bielenia’s magnetic performance, all piercing eyes and daring energy, infuses the film with a vitality and masculinity not typically associated with the clergy. From working around the church grounds without a shirt on to steamier scenes later in the film, there’s a surprising sexiness to Corpus Christi, even as it approaches more serious questions of lies, redemption and the ways we do and don’t connect with each other. With genuine good intentions, Daniel tries to reconcile the tensions between the survivors of the crash and the driver’s widow; elsewhere, he clashes with the owner of that sawmill he’s supposed to be working at when he starts sniffing around for the truth about Daniel’s identity.
Above all, Pacewicz’s story (apparently based on actual events) is one that embraces the complicated nature of any life lived fully, the contradictions inherent to the human experience. Decisions come with consequences, and the past is never really that far away, as both those grieving lost loved ones and Daniel, doing his best to be someone new, know all too well. Kusama directs the film at a comfortable distance, leaving room for Daniel to both grow into his newfound piety and allow us glimpses of the criminal who went to jail in the first place. Because of course, his past will and does catch up with him even in the small town that’s come to embrace him and his irreverent version of faith.
Corpus Christi more than earns its place among the other Best International Feature Film nominees, even if most people never even knew it was there. The combination of a stirring performance from Bielenia and a story willing to explore the complicated ways we relate to each other make it a film worth seeking out.