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In Polish drama ‘Corpus Christi,’ impersonation in pursuit of salvation

Bartosz Bielenia (left) and Eliza Rycembel in "Corpus Christi."Courtesy Film Movement

Movie special effects aren’t limited to the letters CGI. They’re anything that results in a different set of letters, OMG. The source can be computer-generated flummery, sure. But the specialness can also be a lighting scheme, as in classic film noir, or a musical score. The greatest special effect in the “Star Wars” movies has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with John Williams.

The source can even be something as simple, which is also to say complex, as an actor’s face. That’s the case with “Corpus Christi.” The Polish drama was an Oscar nominee this year for best international picture. Starting April 24, it can be streamed via the Coolidge Corner’s virtual screening room, at coolidge.org.


Bartosz Bielenia in "Corpus Christi." Associated Press

The actor is the film’s star, Bartosz Bielenia. He plays Daniel, who’s about to be paroled from a juvenile correctional facility — “prison” sounds too harsh, “reformatory” is definitely not harsh enough. A tough customer, Daniel is also religious. He tells the chaplain that he’d like to enter the seminary (he’s 20). He can’t, the chaplain says, because of his criminal record. Even so, he adds, “Each of us is the priest of Christ.”

Daniel reports for a job at a sawmill. One look, and he knows it’s not for him. He goes to the local church to gather his thoughts. Another churchgoer (Eliza Rycembel) gives him a quizzical look. Her mother (Aleksandra Konieczna) is the rectory housekeeper. Daniel says he’s a priest. Yeah, right, she says, and I’m a nun. He reaches in his bag and pulls out a clerical collar. This sets off a train of events that leads to Daniel — now “Father Tomasz” — filling in when the parish priest leaves unexpectedly for medical reasons.

Daniel barely looks old enough to be a seminarian, let alone an ordained priest. Bielenia is 28, but unless he ages rapidly he’s going to get carded until he’s 40. There are two reasons an audience can accept the parishioners’ acceptance of him. The first is that an opening credit tells us the movie is based on a true story. The second applies to the parishioners, too: Bielenia’s face. It’s not just his performance, which is very good, with its balance of intensity and restraint — Daniel knows perfectly well he’s getting in deeper and deeper; he also knows that, in losing his identity, he’s finding himself. It’s what both conceals and reveals that knowledge, that face.


Picture the NBA star Stephen Curry’s baby face crossed with the young Christopher Walken’s death’s-head tautness crossed with the screaminess of the figure in Munch’s “The Scream.” That’s Bielenia in “Corpus Christi.” It’s the look of a holy fool who’s anything but foolish. It’s a face of faith. If believers can’t have faith in a face of faith what can they have faith in? “And now abide faith, hope, love, these three,” Paul writes in Corinithians; “but the greatest of these is love.” “Corpus Christi” is a movie about faith, not hope or love.

Jan Komasa, the director, knows that the outcome of Daniel’s impersonation matters less than the experience of it — the experience for him, the experience for the parishioners — and what redemption it may offer, if any. Visually, Komasa has keyed “Corpus Christi” to blue and green. The color scheme is one way he makes sure the film is subdued without ever being sedate. Another is its unhurried rhythm. Even when events get intense, even violent, and they do, there’s nothing abrupt. “Corpus Christi” never erupts. It unfolds.


Bortasz Bielenia in "Corpus Christi."Courtesy Film Movement

An assured filmmaker, Komasa clearly knows what he’s doing, even if it’s not always clear why he’s doing it. Not that he himself necessarily likes clarity. He has a penchant for shooting interiors with a soft lens, as if a slight mist fills the space. Presumably, the intention is to appear atmospheric, like an all-purpose incense. At first simply distracting, it comes to seem an affectation. Maybe that could be considered a special effect, too, though not a good one.



Directed by Jan Komasa. Written by Mateusz Pacewicz. Starring Bartosz Bielenia, Aleksandra Konieczna, Eliza Rycembel. Streaming via Coolidge Corner at coolidge.org. 115 minutes. Unrated (as R: violence, language, sexual situations, nudity). In Polish, with subtitles.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.