In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.
Originally posted on Cinema76.
One of the skills we seem to have forgotten as a culture is that of forgiveness. When we are wronged (or of someone tweets something slightly unsavory), we immediately move to strike. We destroy the offender in every way we can manage and then we demand that they apologize. When they do apologize we question the legitimacy of their apology based entirely on the fact that that it was demanded of them and not generated of their own free will. From here we typically say things like “do better” or “you need to do more than just apologize,” without ever offering any sort of groundwork as to how penance and redemption can be obtained. Furthermore, we regard any attempt at growth on the part of the sinner with, at best, complete cynicism, and at worst, purposefully uncharitable interpretations of their every move. Then we add heaps of performative contempt, lest any of us appear so soft on the offender that we end up branded with the same scarlet letter as a result.
This increasingly common behaviors breaks my heart to see, because I am what is commonly referred to as “a bit of a fuck up.” I have required forgiveness on more occasions than I’d be proud to admit, and more than a few times I probably didn’t deserve whatever reprieve I was given. Luckily, I’m surrounded mostly by good people. People who understand that to err is human.
There’s a second part to that cliche.
Ah yes: Forgiveness is divine.
Corpus Christi, Poland’s entry into the most recent Oscars race, takes the concept of divine forgiveness and places it into a challenging human story. Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) has a profound spiritual experience while serving time for a violent crime in a juvenile detention facility. We don’t get the details of his crime at the outset, but it’s made clear that it wasn’t just petty theft. It’s a serious enough infraction to have garnered Daniel some enemies, one of which has recently taken up residence in the same detention center. In an effort to avoid further violence, Daniel is given the opportunity to be moved to a sort of work-release program at a sawmill in a far away town. Daniel would rather join the seminary, having newly found god and all, but the nature of his crimes prevent that from being so. Daniel is a pretty resourceful guy, however, and during his trip to the sawmill, he makes a pit stop at a local church. During his little aside he spontaneously claims that he’s a priest while flirting with a young lady. Almost immediately he is treated like a man of the cloth, and Daniel figures screw it — let’s see how long this ruse can last.
Daniel’s passion at the pulpit is just what the sleepy town needs as they recover from a controversial local tragedy, and as his version of religious catechism begins to take hold in the community, the locals are forced to reconcile their own ethical weaknesses. And as Daniel’s profile grows, so does his chance of being found out by characters from his past.
Corpus Christi excels as both a challenging drama and a wicked suspense tale. The script, by Mateusz Pacewicz, is densely packed with thematics. Every plot beat doubles as a rumination on forgiveness, but never does it become preachy like my opening paragraphs did. The system through which plot information is released is impeccable. We only know what we know when we need to know it, and oftentimes this information fades in from the periphery — a passive comment, a suggestive phrasing, a moment of unexplained oddity — all employed in such a way to keep the audience absorbed, and to build within them a potential for that oh-so-satisfying “ohhhhhhhhhhhh!” moment that comes when the pieces fall into place.
Tonally, too, Corpus Christi is managed adeptly. Moments of humor are undercut with tension; moments of sadness are undercut with hope; moments of hope, undercut with fear. Each moment is a delicate balance that keeps us engaged, but also creates a true-to-life world to spend a few hours in.
Appropriate, given that this larger than life tale is based on a true story.
None of this would work, of course, without the assured direction of Jan Komasa or the deeply committed central performance from Bartosz Bielenia. One need only look into Bielenia’s eyes to know a wealth of detail about Daniel, and when he gives his mass, there’s no question as to why the entire community latches onto him. As portrayed by Bielenia, Daniel is perfectly magnetic, while also appearing quite damaged. He’s compelling enough to earn our goodwill, but with a thorough enough characterization to challenge us as we learn more about his sordid history.
In this way, Corpus Christi adheres to its themes in a big way, earning our forgiveness toward Daniel long before ever giving us reasons to doubt doing so. As such, it becomes a tangible lesson in our own capacity to grant absolution in the real world, while demonstrating, through a stunner of a finale, why this skill, which can be learned almost as easily as it can be forgotten, is essential to our collective humanity.
To use church terms, I guess you could call this one a parable.
Corpus Christi opens today at the Ritz East.