An extraordinary but problematic exercise in suffering and redemption, “Corpus Christi” presents life in Poland’s ravaged, economically dislocated youth population.
The story is told through the haunting eyes of Daniel (newcomer Bartolz Bienemia in a vivid, intense performance), a 20-year-old inmate of an isolated youth detention center hundreds of miles from Warsaw.
“Corpus Christi,” directed by Jan Komasa and written by Mateusz Pacewicz, is a labor-intensive movie that opens in a dingy, dusty sawmill where the young inmates work and, sometimes, take revenge on a rival.
Shot by talented American cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski Jr. in pallid greens and browns, the visual scheme emphasizes the purgatory-like quality of life in Poland’s draining, dead-end youth culture.
Daniel is released on parole and ordered to report to another sawmill some miles away for work and counseling. When he gets there, however, he despises what he sees and simply walks away. He drifts through the countryside until he arrives at a small village.
A chance encounter with a pretty teenage girl changes Daniel’s life. Their easy banter is one of the film’s virtues as they walk through the streets. Daniel wanted to be priest, but no seminary will accept a young man with his record. So he jokes with the girl that he is a priest.
To Daniel’s surprise, she takes him seriously and brings him to the local church, where Father Tomasz, the real parish priest, invites Daniel to fill in for him while he’s away. Relieved but frightened, Daniel accepts the invitation and impersonates a man of the cloth.
His free-spirited style and natural charm and generosity win over most of the villagers, and they, in turn, raise him up spiritually. The exception is a sorrowful handful of villagers (including his wary housekeeper) who still feel the pain of a tragedy that resulted in the deaths of six promising young people. Curious about the nature of the tragedy, Daniel investigates. He is rebuffed by the suffering villagers and the mayor, and the masquerade starts to unravel.
“Corpus Christi” is marred by a talky middle section that sags while we spend much film time waiting for Daniel’s adversary to arrive, for the mayor to wise up to what’s happening and for Daniel to be exposed as a charlatan. It’s the modest visual palette that actually sharpens the contrast and movement from scene to scene.
The script reveals a few weaknesses as well. Daniel is presumably a member of a gang, but it is not explicit in the drama. The mystery of the makeshift shrine to the tragedy’s victims takes a bit too long to solve. And a few characters are either dramatically unclear or interchangeable. More successful is the film’s dry wit, best expressed when Daniel studies how to say a Mass by the light of his cell phone.
But the flaws don’t detract from the movie’s casual tone and calamitous sights — from the attempted torture of a boy in the sawmill to the astonishing final apocalypse of fire, smoke and screams.