In Christian terms, Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) is a sinner. He used to rob shops and stores. He did drugs. He killed a man. As he puts it: "Once I wanted to show off in front of my people, so I beat the shit out of one fucker and he fucking collapsed. He dropped dead in the hospital."
Well, unmeditated murder is still murder. Daniel ended up in a detention centre. And when he found out that the brother of the man he killed was heading to the same detention centre, he begged for parole. That's the story of how Daniel is sent to work in a saw mill "at the other end of the country".
But that's not the story of Jan Komasa's 2019 drama Corpus Christi, which premiered at the 2019 Venice Film Festival and was the Polish entry for the Best International Feature Film at Academy Awards 2020. (It was nominated. It lost to Parasite.) The story is really about faith (look, again, at the film's title!), which some of us struggle with. Movies about faith, therefore, are endlessly fascinating, because they allow us to concrete-ise the abstract questions in our mind.
You don't have to really believe in order to be moved by this line from Jesus in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ: "If I was a woodcutter, I'd cut. If I was a fire, I'd burn. But I'm a heart and I love. That's the only thing I can do." You don't have to really believe in order to make a movie about belief. Roger Ebert wrote about Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew, "[This] is one of the most effective films on a religious theme I have ever seen, perhaps because it was made by a nonbeliever who did not preach, glorify, underline, sentimentalize or romanticize his famous story, but tried his best to simply record it."
Daniel may be a sinner, but he sings like an angel and speaks like a saint. At the detention centre, he led the assembly in prayer. Now, in the godforsaken place where the saw mill is, this is what he says to a woman who asks where he is from. "Doesn't matter where you're coming from. All that matters is where you are going." So she asks him where he is going. He replies, "Wherever the wind takes me I settle." He is not faking it. There's something deeply spiritual inside Daniel, whose very name is that of the Biblical figure who was thrown into a den of lions and was subsequently saved by his faith.
Corpus Christi redefines faith as something doesn't have to come from a man dressed in white robes and glaring down at you from a pulpit. It says that religion isn't something that needs to be followed by the book.
The plot has Daniel pretending to be a priest and offering deliverance to the people of that town in ways the earlier, more traditional priest couldn't. The film raises the question that perhaps religion has to be reimagined from time to time. In a lighter moment, Daniel tells a group of youngsters that celibacy is pointless. "Once, a pope came up with this idea and now it's a problem. But God had a kid and no one gets at him." Heh!
The most interesting passage in Corpus Christi comes from another priest who thinks like Daniel. In his view, there is no point in praying mechanically. There is no point in attending church just to get it done with. You don't even have to be in church to be with God. If you want to step out and play football, God will follow you. So why attend church, then? To pray. To "talk to God". To tell Him something important, something personal, like your feelings of anger and fear and hurt and guilt.
In fact, the reason Daniel becomes a priest is that the earlier, older priest needed to go away for a while. The man had committed a mortal sin and he confessed, but he realised confession doesn't solve anything. (It's like "praying mechanically", like the other priest said above.) So he decides to go in search of a "treatment", leaving Daniel as a replacement.
Daniel, then, administers his own form of "treatment" to residents of the town who are grieving the loss of six youngsters who died in a car crash. This is a reference to a real-life tragedy, the director told Variety, "[In Poland] we had a horrible tragedy with 90-something people killed onboard a plane in 2010, with the president and a number of officials from the government. It was a horrible tragedy, most probably due to human error. What came after was even more telling. We could feel through the last nine years that the country literally split over the meaning and significance of the crash, with half of the country claiming it was a mystical sign of an old ending and a new beginning -- to finally see the truth that we are besieged [by evil] as a country."
Corpus Christi, therefore, not just examines the philosophy behind faith (and how we define someone who is "faithful"), but also comments on how apparently random incidents can take on new, almost Biblical meanings and be interpreted as acts of a vengeful God. And Daniel's "treatment" to the affected townspeople comes in the form of an angry sermon. "Lord, you took them away from us¦ What you did was unfair. Cruel. Stupid. We don't understand why you did that. We are furious. Try to understand us. Don't judge, but understand us. And help us, O Lord¦ Help us understand you! For we know how easy it is to lose faith. Not only in God and his goodness. But at the point of it all."
If religion is to survive, maybe this is the way, where the "prayer" becomes a form of personalised therapy. Daniel takes the townspeople to a board where the victims' faces are plastered. He asks them to close their eyes and extend their hands towards the victims. "Maybe they feel our presence. Maybe they hear us. Maybe they also miss us and need a hug." One part of me wanted to laugh, because this is so not what we know as "religion". (I imagined the apoplexy on the face of Daniel's predecessor, had he come upon this sight). But I was also deeply moved. The point of prayer is to heal. Does it matter in what form this healing comes, and whether it comes from a saint or a sinner?
Corpus Christi was screened at Dharamshala International Film Festival 2020.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).