Ambiguity can become a crutch, rather than a strength, for a filmmaker. It is as if they don’t want to make a choice or a narrative decision, instead leaving it up to the audience to make the choice for them. But when it’s done right – as it is in director Jan Komasa’s Corpus Christi – the ambiguity is what makes the story work, and creates a film that sticks with the audience long after the final shot.
In Corpus Christi, Bartosz Bielenia is Daniel, a 20-year-old in a youth detention center with dual motivations. When we’re first introduced to Daniel, he’s keeping guard, while others abuse another man in their carpentry class. A few minutes later, we see he has a deep religious conviction that draws him to the priesthood. When Daniel is allowed to leave the center, he tells the center’s priest that he would like to one day become a priest. Since Daniel is a convict, the priest tells him he could never achieve that calling, despite how desperately Daniel longs for that life.
Daniel is sent to work at a carpenter’s workshop in a small village, and upon visiting a local church, pretends to be a priest and takes over the parish. The surprising thing is that Daniel is damn good at it. Not because he’s an innocent, calm, sober guy, but because he’s lived a life of failures and has seen where his mistakes have led him. Daniel is dynamic and thinks outside the box of what this town is expecting, while also opening up old wounds of past traumas. Komasa makes a good case that this town and Daniel truly need each other to survive, a symbiotic relationship that is problematic at times, but ultimately works for the benefit of both sides.
Komasa and Corpus Christi’s writer Mateusz Pacewicz question the conservative nature of religion, that the idea of openness and love for others is preached, but not practiced to the level it should be. God might be able to forgive all sins, but people aren’t as accepting. Bielenia is phenomenal here, presenting the conflicting spirit within Daniel, a man trying his best to follow his religion, yet constantly caught up in his secular desires. It’s easy to live a pure life and fall into a pure calling. It’s another to live a troubled life and find purity on your own.
The inconclusive way Komasa, Pacewicz, and Bielenia portray Daniel makes all the difference. Corpus Christi isn’t saying Daniel is right or wrong in is actions, but rather, that this is just one step on the path in Daniel’s life that God has sent him down. Was this all part of God’s larger plan, or was this Daniel making his own path? Both are completely valid responses to Corpus Christi and Daniel’s journey.
Not surprisingly, it’s when Corpus Christi has to make Daniel pay for his sins that the film hits its biggest speed bump. The clash of his previous life and his present one seems like a third act push for stakes that aren’t close to as tense and interesting as the uncertain morals that the film has built around itself.
Corpus Christi isn’t a film with easy answers, but with its moral opaqueness and haunting ending, it is one of the most thought-provoking films so far this year and an exciting breakthrough for both Komasa and Bielenia.