Corpus Christi Fearlessly Questions Our Beliefs in Religion and Redemption

Corpus Christi” was one of the five films nominated at this year’s Academy Awards for Best International Feature (formerly Best Foreign Film). While it was destined to lose to “Parasite”, this does not in any way speak to its overall quality. In fact, I hope people get a chance to check out this import from Poland if and when they get the chance. While its plot might make it look like a remake of “Sister Act,” “Corpus Christi” is a deeply thoughtful look at religion and of how the road to redemption is a rough one for the average convicted felon.

We are introduced to Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia), a 20-year-old man who has spent several years in prison for a violent crime, as he serves as lookout for the guards while a fellow inmate is being assaulted. But soon after that, we see him taking part in a religious service with the prison chaplain, and we can see he has found a spiritual awakening while behind bars. He aspires to become a priest, but his criminal conviction prevents him from ever becoming one. I always find it interesting how when a convicted felon does his time and is released from prison, but for some odd reason he or she is never fully free. They always seem forever defined by a past which no one will ever let them completely atone for. Like the DMV, people never forget.

Upon his release, Daniel is sent to a remote village where a job as a day laborer awaits him, but he sees a church in the distance and decides to walk over to it. Once there, a quick lie allows him to be mistaken as the church’s new priest, and it is a role he jumps into with little, if any, hesitation. But while he proves to have a strong and positive effect  to where the church seats are filled up more than they were previously, we know his past will eventually catch up with him. Moreover, he knows it will as well, and a scene where we hear a clock ticking loudly alerts us to how his time is running out.

For a time, “Corpus Christi” plays like a comedy as Daniel seems ill-equipped to be a priest. During a confession where a mother talks about the troubles she is having with her teenage son, he furiously looks at the internet on his cell phone to get an answer, any answer. In one of his sermons, he repeats the words the priest in prison spoke to him and his fellow convicts such as “I’m not here to pray to you mechanically” and “each of you is the priest of Christ.” Clearly, he is stumbling about, but he eventually inspires the local community to where the church finds its attendance increasing to an astonishing degree.

Director Jan Komasa, working from a screenplay by Mateusz Pacewicz, is never quick to reveal every aspect of this small-town Daniel resides in. We eventually come to discover how a tragedy has long since engulfed the town in a never ending state of grief, and we are with Daniel every step of the way as he uncovers the devastation which has left the residents in such an infinitely mournful state. While he is essentially doing a “fake it till you make it” act a, the efforts Daniel makes to heal the town of its deep emotional wounds is truly moving, and I found myself rooting for him to have a positive effect.

Bartosz Bielenia gives a powerful performance as Daniel, and he inhabits this character with a truly fierce passion for his newfound calling. While Daniel is in lying about being qualified to be a priest, he quickly proves to us how his spiritual awakening is no joke. His methods may not always be sound, but his willingness to help those in his parish comes from the heart. Even when he is eventually exposed, and this is really not spoiling anything, I was left enthralled by Bielenia’s portrayal as Daniel because his religious calling is never in doubt to him or those who have flocked to his church.

At the heart of “Corpus Christi” comes a number of questions: What does it mean to have faith? What does it mean to be a religious person? Does redemption ever get fully realized by the society which surrounds the sinner? Does any individual deserve to recognized by their past more than their present? While this church, or any other church, may have rules about who can and cannot a priest or a nun, one wonders if those rules should be so stringent after watching this movie. Daniel’s spiritual awakening is no joke, and I personally would rather converse with a priest who was a sinner than one who has a “holier than thou” attitude.

Seriously, the more I think about “Corpus Christi,” the more I am reminded of a routine from George Carlin’s classic comedy album “Class Clown” entitled “The Confessional:”

“I wanted to get into Father Byrne’s confessional one Saturday maybe a half hour before he showed up and get in there and hear a few confessions, you know? Because I knew according to my faith and religion that if anyone came in there and really thought I was Father Byrne and really wanted to be forgiven…and perform the penance I had assigned…they would have been forgiven, man! ‘Cause that’s what they taught us; it’s what’s in your mind that counts; your intentions, that’s how we’ll judge you. What you want to do. Mortal sin had to be a grievous offense, sufficient reflection and full consent of the will. You had to WANNA! In fact, WANNA was a sin all by itself. “Thou Shalt Not WANNA”. If you woke up in the morning and said, ‘I’m going down to 42nd street and commit a mortal sin!’ Save your car fare; you did it, man!”

When it comes to Daniel, he may not be a priest, but he is willing to hear you and help you out. While he may be breaking sacred rules, at least he is making an effort to get you past your sins.

“Corpus Christi” ends on an ambiguous note as Daniel may have found a salvation he may not have expected to find in the direst of circumstances. Unlike the average faith-based movie, this one is not out to prove or disprove the existence of Jesus Christ. All that matters is Daniel believes such a person exists, and this may have very well saved him from a horrific fate. Some questions deserve an answer, but others deserve to be pondered on for a long time.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

CLICK HERE TO CHECK OUT MY EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH JAN KOMASA AND BARTOSZ BIELENIA ABOUT “CORPUS CHRISTI”

‘Shoplifters’ is an Emotional Rollercoaster and One of the Best Movies of 2018

Shoplifters movie poster

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters” is one of the most emotionally resonant movies I have seen in 2018, and it is a real gem in a cinematic year dominated by, big surprise, superhero blockbusters and endless sequels. The hope and warm emotions which emanate from it feel like the kind I have not been witness to on the silver screen in ages, and the movie dares you to ponder what the word family really means. While many see families being bound by blood, “Shoplifters” suggests there is more to it than that.

Things start off with Osamu Shibata (Lilly Franky) arriving at a supermarket in Tokyo, Japan, and we will eventually see how this movie got its name. With him is the young Shota (Jyo Kairi), and they use hand signals with each other to indicate when the coast is clear to take what they want and need. Put aside the fact no parent or adult figure should ever be teaching a child to steal; these two have an effective system which leads to them obtaining the goods they need without going through the checkout line or setting off an array of alarms. More importantly, it shows the strong connection between these two, and it is not one which is easily formed.

Upon arriving home, we see they with several other people in a cramped apartment which was made for two people at best. Among them are Osamu’s wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), who works an unforgiving and low-paying job at a local laundromat, their daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) who performs sex shows for anonymous customers, and grandmother Hatsue Shibata (the late Kirin Kiki who steals every scene she is in) whose residence they all reside in. Everyone here is suffering through an unsteady economy dominated by recession, so these characters are forced to steal items such as food and clothes in order to get by. Yes, Hatsue does have her late husband’s pension to fall back on, but it is never enough to fulfill their needs.

Then on one cold evening as Osamu and Shota are returning after another successful day of shoplifting, they come across Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a 5-year-old homeless girl sitting all alone by herself. As the temperature decreases rapidly, and you could do a drinking game for every time a character says “it’s cold,” they decide to take her home for the night. With their apartment overcrowded, Nobuyo suggests they return Yuri home, but a visit to her residence reveals her parents are abusive to one another and to Yuri as well. As a result, Osamu and Nobuyo find themselves informally adopting her.

What struck me most about “Shoplifters” is how genuine its emotions feel. From a distance, the description of the plot might make it seem something along the lines of “Three Men and a Baby” or maybe even “Raising Arizona,” both of which featured characters who become parents in unorthodox ways. But Kore-eda is not out to manipulate our emotions for a single second as he lets life unfold before us in a way which feels real and unpredictable. No one appears to be acting here, and every single actor inhabits their roles to where you are seduced into the movie’s wonderful atmosphere with what seems like relative ease.

The affection everyone in the small apartment has for Yuri feels wonderful and hopeful to take in, and her presence has a profound effect on them all. The scene where Nobuyo and Yuri burn the 5-year-old’s clothes in an effort to start fresh in life speaks volumes. The two share scars of past abuse, and Nobuyo cuddles her and says how people show their love for one another through hugs, not violence. If there has been a more genuinely sweet scene in a 2018 movie, I missed it.

As for the others, Osamu and Nobuyo find an intimacy in their relationship which has eluded them for far too long, and Aki yearns to get closer to one of her customers as she can no longer keep him at a distance. Shota slowly begins to bond with Yuri to where he feels comfortable calling her sister, but this later leads him on a journey to find himself in a way which will have inevitable consequences for everyone that we don’t really see coming.

Revealing more of what happens in “Shoplifters” would be criminal, but I can tell you the last half is truly devastating as everything we thought we knew about these characters is turned upside down. One of Kore-eda’s masterstrokes as a writer and director is he never judges the characters, and as a result, neither did I. Even as the local news reports of Yuri’s disappearance, Osamu and Nobuyo justify their actions by saying they did not kidnap her since they never asked for a ransom. It’s a weak defense to be sure, but seeing the connection these characters have with one another deeply moved me to where I actually found myself giving them a pass which I never would have in real life.

With “Shoplifters,” Kore-eda aims to look at what makes a family. While we collectively believe it is blood which makes a family, he wonders if there is more to a family than that. At a key moment, one of the characters says if having a baby automatically makes you a parent. Well that goes without saying, but considering the love and affection these characters grace Yuri with, I had a hard time finding enough of a reason to separate her from them.

Kore-eda was also influenced by the Japanese recession, and he uses this to deal with the declining social statuses many are forced to deal with in the country. Then again, “Shoplifters” could be about any country where greed continues to wreak havoc due to corporations valuing the size of their profits over the rights of the workers who helped get them those profits. We Osamu trying to get whatever work he can, and the work he gets never pays enough. Nobuyo’s job offers her a pathetically low wage, and then later we get a scene where her boss forces her and her co-worker to decide amongst themselves who should get fired when it is determined there is only enough money to keep one of them on the payroll.

“Shoplifters” is a movie which will stay with you long after you have watched it. I was deeply moved by it from start to finish as its humanity really made me appreciate the value of family in a way no other movie has in a long time. We are at a point where there are far too many movies to keep up with, but this is one I highly recommend you check out above others. This one took me for quite the emotional ride and left me fully wringed out by its end, and the experience was one of the most rewarding.

* * * * out of * * * *