Venice 2019 review: Corpus Christi (Jan Komasa)

The deceitful body of the Christ, in Jan Komasa’s latest effort, is that of an impostor, who speaks the word of God on his own authority and offers himself up for punishment knowing full well that a reckoning is coming. It’s a somber, meditative study of a sacrificial act observed in slow motion, and Komasa shares the credit for its quiet efficacy with lead actor Bartosz Bielenia. It’s his face that lodges itself in the conscience of the viewer, mouth agape, pale skin, and eyes that resemble those of a young Christopher Walken, perpetually interrogating that which the camera can’t see. At times, he himself seems to be overwhelmed by the role; and yet, days after watching the film, that face remains alive in the memory.

The priest, a fascinating figure that cinema has mined with consistent success, is usually approached narratively as a function of faith lost, albeit in the face of a legitimacy that still weighs down the individual, like an indictment from a higher power. The priest, in other words, usually has no way to go but down. Komasa inverts that, making Daniel a troubled young man but still eager to speak to the people, able to find comforting words even to his own marvel, overcoming some understandable initial stuttering due to the magnitude of his absurd con. Such absurdity, far from being played for comedy, is admirably sustained by the director, and made frictionless on screen.

Covered in tattoos and scars, introduced through an act of gratuitous violence, and traumatised well beyond his years, Daniel simply cannot be a priest, either by law or common sense. And yet he basically walks into the job under the cover of the lenient trust provided by a small-town community. Ultimately too concerned with the realm of the body to be able to reach the intellectual sophistication of a First Reformed, Corpus Christi nonetheless plays like a flipside to Paul Schrader’s coin, down to the presence of external injustice looming over the community, requiring a man of the cloth to consume himself in an attempt to vanquish it.

It’s fertile, lively territory for Komasa, here on his third feature. The director of Warsaw ‘44 abandons the big canvas of his previous work to go back to a more intimate excavation of the human soul, more akin to the tone of his debut, Suicide Room. Well-supported by Piotr Sobociński’s uniformly gloomy yet surface-piercing cinematography, his vision of rural Poland as a world begging to be healed by the broken feels at the same time desperate, brave and deeply sympathetic.