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”

Exclusive Video Interview with ‘Corpus Christi’s’ Jan Komasa and Bartosz Bielenia

In a year filled with many great foreign films like “Parasite,” “Corpus Christi” is another one to keep an eye out for. Directed by Jan Komasa (“Suicide Room” and “Warsaw 44”), it stars Bartosz Bielienia as Daniel, a 20-year-old man on the verge of finishing his sentence at a youth detention center for second degree murder. While there, he experiences a spiritual awakening which inspires him to enter the priesthood, but because of his felony conviction, no seminary will ever be able to accept him. Upon his release, he is sent to a small village to do manual labor. However, Daniel quickly discovers the local church there and ends up lying his way into becoming the town’s new priest. His passion and unconventional methods come to inspire its residents in a way they have not been in a while, and in the process he comes to discover a terrible tragedy which has engulfed the town in endless sorrow. As he digs deeper into the tragedy and the town’s deepest secrets, some of the townspeople become increasingly suspicious of his methods, and it is only a matter of time before the past catches up with him.

Now the above plot description might make “Corpus Christi” sound like a remake of “Sister Act,” but it really proves to be a thoughtful and compelling motion picture as it ponders what it means to be a person of faith, of the possibility of finding forgiveness in a realm where sadness and anger seem infinite and irrevocable, and of finding redemption even when society will not easily permit its criminally convicted to do so. What results is an enthralling film which is now Poland’s selection for the Best International Film category at the 92nd Academy Awards.

I was lucky enough to speak with Komasa and Bielienia while they were in Los Angeles to do press for “Corpus Christi.” Komasa recently won the Best Director award at the Gdynia Film Festival for his work here, and Bielienia has picked up Best Actor awards at the El Gouna Film Festival, the Chicago International Film and the Stockholm International Film Festival.

Be sure to check out “Corpus Christi” when Film Movement releases in American theaters in 2020. My full interview is up above, and you can also watch the movie’s trailer down below.

‘Cold War’ Beautifully Contemplates The Things We Do for Love

Cold War 2018 movie poster

It has now been over a week since I watched Paweł Pawlikowski’s “Cold War,” and it is rightly described in the production notes as being “an impossible love story in impossible times.” Indeed, there is something about love which forms a bond which cannot always be described in words. The two star-crossed lovers we see here share a love for music, but their differences come to the surface more often than not to where you wonder why they keep reuniting time and time again. Pawlikowski never tries to provide an absolute answer as to why these two individuals cannot end their deep affections for one another, but he doesn’t need to as some things cannot be put into words.

Thinking about “Cold War” somehow brought to mind one of my favorite songs by Howard Jones entitled “What is Love?”. This song was released back in the 1980’s which marked the start of America being seduced by infinite greed, but I was just a kid who had yet to have his innocence ripped away from him. The music really took me in as the synthesizer melodies were a big favorite of mine back then, but the lyrics have since taken on a deeper meaning for me:

“I love you whether or not you love me

I love you even if you think that I don’t

Sometimes I find you doubt my love for you, but I don’t mind

Why should I mind, why should I mind?

What is love anyway? Does anybody love anybody anyway?”

“Cold War” seeks to ask those same questions as it transports us back to post-war Poland in the 1950’s where we meet Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot), a musical director at Mazurek, a nascent folk arts ensemble which, as one of its instructors makes very clear, deals with the music of “pain and humiliation.” In the process of auditioning new singers, he comes across the young Zuzanna “Zula” Lichoń (Joanna Kulig) who is fearless in continuing her performance even after she is told to stop. It’s a thrilling scene as these two individuals from different parts of life are quick to lock eyes and create a connection not easily formed in the average Nicholas Sparks cinematic adaptation.

Wiktor comes from a more refined and educated world while Zula comes from, as some may say, the wrong side of town. Their attraction to one another is instant. Is it a fascination with a person’s past history? Wiktor is told Zula stabbed her father with a knife, and this of course makes him wonder why someone would do such a thing. When he asks her why, her answer is blunt and to the point, “He mistook me for my mother and a knife showed him the difference.” We never even learn which part of the body the knife pierced.

Their differences are strong, but there is an unmistakable bond between them which will not break. As “Cold War” moves on, their relationship stretches over a decade and several different locations including Poland, Warsaw, East Berlin and Paris. They become involved with others, but the love they have for one another will not die an easy death. You keep waiting for one of them to tell the other “I wish I knew how to quit you” because they cannot get themselves to leave the other be. Wiktor tells Zula to find “another normal guy” who can support you to which she replies, “Such man is not born yet.” This happens around the movie’s midpoint, and by then it is unlikely such a man will ever be born.

Is this real love, or is it just obsession? Such answers do not matter because all you need to know is how strong Wiktor’s and Zula’s bond is. You can question it all you want, but the love is there even if it exists in a state of emotional torture. John Lennon once sang of how love is real, but Nazareth made it clear that love hurts, and the love these two mismatched souls have for one another seems to exist in a space between those two thoughts.

Just like Mike Leigh did with “Mr. Turner,” Pawlikowski does a brilliant job of taking us back to a time and place to where I felt truly transported to another era. I never questioned the authenticity of what was being presented because it all felt so real to me, and Łukasz Żal’s black and white cinematography is simply gorgeous to take in. It makes me wonder why we don’t get more black and white movies these days. While the lack of colors may seem limiting to filmmakers in general, there is something about the monochrome look which gets everything just right.

What’s especially commendable about “Cold War” is how epic this love story is, and yet Pawlikowski fits everything into a running time which is just below 90 minutes. The movie felt so much longer than that, and yet I came out of it feeling like I saw something immense and wide-ranging.

Tomasz Kot is one those actors who has this smoldering intensity about him. I remember William Petersen having this same kind of intensity in “To Live and Die in L.A.” and “Manhunter,” and it’s as if he doesn’t have to do much to generate any kind of charisma. I am envious and, I have to admit, a bit resentful of actors who can pull this off, but he also lets you see what is going on in his mind as his character of Wiktor suffers through a maddening heartbreak and career setbacks which have him trading the music he loves out for something more politically friendly. You have to admire the subtle acting he does here as it is never easy for anyone to pull off.

Joanna Kulig is every bit Kot’s equal as Zula, and it is fascinating to watch her take this character from being a young student to an adult in an equally subtle way. Kulig also excels at spelling out what is going through Zula’s head to where she needs no dialogue to spell out her feelings, and she is fearless in portraying the character’s constant struggle to escape the confines of a life which keeps putting her into a corner.

“Cold War” is one of the most immersive cinematic experiences I got to witness in 2018, and I hope any phobias you have about movies with subtitles do not keep you from seeing it. The love story is harrowing, but the visuals are beautiful. It’s hard to find movies these days which suck you into their settings the way this one has, and it serves as a reminder of how powerful cinema can be.

Pawlikowski has said this movie is semi-autobiographical as it was inspired by his parents who kept splitting up and getting back together time and time again. Why do couples do this to themselves? It seems unhealthy, and yet some cannot tear themselves away from a mad love story. But once again, he is not out to answer what he believes love really is. I guess he just wanted to know their love was real in some unspoken way. With “Cold War,” I believe he has accomplished just that.

* * * * out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Olga Szymanska on Marcin Wrona’s ‘Demon’

It was very sad to learn of Polish director Marcin Wrona’s passing on September 18, 2015. He committed suicide before a screening of his latest film, “Demon,” the last in a trilogy which began with “My Flesh, My Blood” and “The Christening.” Like those two films, “Demon” deals with the nature of evil and a fate the protagonist is forced to deal with. Itay Tiran stars as Piotr (a.k.a. Python) who is on the verge of getting married to the beautiful Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska) and moving into a family home which has survived from one generation to the next. But on the day of his wedding, Piotr suddenly becomes possessed by a spirit which will no longer remain silent, and what should be a joyous day soon turns into the wedding from hell as the past will no longer remain buried.

While Wrona is no longer with us, his “Demon” is a tremendously well-made horror film which allowed him to leave his mark on the world of cinema, and it provides us with an interesting take on the Jewish legend of the dybbuk. It is a beautifully filmed movie with incredible vistas and an all-encompassing darkness as a bad situation gets even worse, and that’s not just because the wedding guests have drunk far too much vodka. Watching “Demon” also reminds us of the power of ambiguity as not all questions are answered here, and this forces the viewer to think more deeply about what they have just witnessed.

I got to speak with Olga Szymanska, the producer of “Demon” and Wrona’s widow, while she was in Los Angeles to promote the film. I applaud her for supporting her late husband’s work while dealing with a loss which is still hard for many to accept. She talked about what went into the making of “Demon,” how it relates to Wrona’s previous two films, if she was ever worried about people not understanding the legend of the dybbuk, and of how Wrona and his cinematographer Pawell Flis gave the film such a striking look.

Please check out the interview above, and be sure to check out “Demon” which is playing at the Nuart Theatre through September 15.

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