Corpus Christi was Poland’s entry for Best International Film at the 2020 Academy Awards. It is a strong film that may well have taken home a prize most years, but Parasite surged to victory not only in the International category but for Best Motion Picture of the year.
Normally an Academy Award nomination itself would be sufficient to get the film into a few theaters state side, but with COVID-19 causing widespread social distancing, curious viewers had to wait for the DVD release from Film Movement. The Blu-Ray disc includes a “making-of” featurette and a bonus short film by director Jan Kusama. Film Movement typically includes a short film on their DVDs, making it a great label for keep up with shorts, but this is the first time I’ve seen one of their films come with a short from the same director who created the feature film.
The film takes a conventional scenario and invests it with enough cultural specificity to make it feel fresh. When the film opens, Daniel is in a Polish detention center for juveniles. It appears to be the sort of hellish place where the only people who have religion are those faking it to curry favor. In a brief but essential scene, however, we find out the Daniel’s spiritual transformation extends beyond the goal of getting paroled. He speaks to the detention center’s priest about wanting to go to seminary, a wish he has expressed previously, only to be told in no uncertain terms that his conviction disqualifies him. The best he can hope for is manual labor at a sawmill where the jail funnels its parolees as cheap and easily cowed labor.
The second act is perhaps the most conventional. When Daniel passes himself off as a priest, he is terrified and surprised to be taken at his word. The local parish where he lands is dealing with a corporate tragedy: several young people have been killed in an automobile accident, and the other driver has been scapegoated as the villain. What is most interesting about the way the scenario plays out is that the film avoids making any one faction too good to be true or too conveniently evil to be redeemed. Corpus Christi has drawn some comparisons to First Reformed, but I saw a family resemblance to John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary in that it provided enough insight into and variety among the parishioners to make their spiritual struggles as relevant as those of the priest.
For what it’s worth, the film Komasa cites as a “starting point” is Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, which goes a long way towards framing the film’s attitude towards the state as the ultimate antagonist to the individual. The mixed attitude towards the church as a source of comfort that is too often uncomfortably usurped by the state as a social control mechanism is theme less prevalent in American art than it is in World Cinema. Outside of some African-American narratives, we continue to cling to the ideal that these powers have been once and forever separated by the Constitution. Perhaps we see some hints in narratives against capital punishment — Just Mercy, Dead Man Walking, At the Death House Door — but for the most part we appear to prefer to turn a blind eye to the hardening effects of capricious and unequal justice.
Ultimately, what makes Corpus Christi disturbing, in a good way, is that the deviant struggles harder against circumstance than the conventionally pious. I remember many years ago while watch Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped for the first time, consciously thinking at one point that the protagonist had to resort to violence. It wasn’t his fault. It was unfortunate. But circumstances had left him no other choice. I remember too some of the shame that came upon reflection when the character eschewed the violence I justified as being “unavoidable.” As Daniel’s past closes in on him and as he sees how those in power and with privileges fail to confront their own venality, it would be justifiable for him to turn to anger or cynicism. Instead he wrestles, not just with his own conscience but with his own understanding of what of what it means to be committed to the welfare and betterment of a larger body.