‘Corpus Christi’ takes unorthodox journey to find the light

“Corpus Christi”

Not Rated. In Polish with subtitles. Streaming at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center and the film’s distributor Film Movement website.

Grade: A-

A nominee in the International Film category of the Academy Awards this year, “Corpus Christi” recalls Nikolai Gogol’s classic of mistaken identity “The Government Inspector” in its tale of a young convict, who presents himself as the new priest for a small, stricken village in the Polish countryside. At first you think it’s going to be a fox in the hen house tale of a miscreant who takes advantage of the power the priestly robes bestow upon men, especially in the rural countryside. But the film is full of surprises.

Daniel (handsome, baby-faced Bartosz Bielenia) gets released from juvenile jail, where he served time for second degree murder and also served as altar boy for prison mass. Daniel’s criminal record makes it impossible for him to get into a seminary. But upon release, he arrives at a small village where a new priest is expected to replace the old one, who has taken ill, and Daniel, who wishes to be a priest although he is a sinner, plays along, and soon he revels in helping the families and troubled people, hearing confessions, saying mass and preaching to the villagers, who seek reconciliation and forgiveness. It’s not a mockery. Daniel is serious about his work, and he needs sinners as much as they need him. At the same time, he is obviously attracted to one of the village’s young women, a girl named Eliza (Eliza Rycembel). She returns his interest. During time off, Daniel is drawn to the village’s young people, who enjoy his company and treat him as one of them and even get high with him. Soon, Daniel has learned some of the village’s dark secrets and embarks upon a quest to help the people heal. But before long, another ex-con arrives and threatens to reveal the truth abut Daniel to his parishioners.

Every time you think you know what is going to happen in ”Corpus Christi,” the film, along with its breakout leading man, surprises you. As Daniel, Bielenia reminded me of the young Christopher Walken, a loopy, sexually attractive firebrand with a violent streak. Daniel expresses his passion for Catholicism in a way that the villagers can understand and relate to. In more traditional parlance, he makes them see the light or at least want to see it, and Bielenia is unusually adept at expressing this. When he and Eliza get drunk and make love for the first time in a remarkably sensual scene, you are shocked. But then you remember, he is not the village priest. He is an imposter, a 20-year-old ex-convict and that actually makes you feel relieved. Plus, he is helping the community. So what if he is an imposter? Aren’t we all imposters, and sinners, in some way or another? Don’t we all experience doubt with a few exceptions? The brilliant screenplay by Mateusz Pacewicz, which was inspired by a true story, also takes some inspiration from Nathaniel Hawthorne. “Corpus Christi,” which was directed by award-winning, rising star Jan Komasa (“Warsaw 44”), genuinely examines the role of religion in our lives. In spite of its violence, nudity and sex, which one can also find in excess in the Bible, the film is at its heart pious. Get ready to see the light.

(“Corpus Christi” contains drug use, sexually suggestive images, profanity and violence)

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