A workshop where a group of young men are sawing wood. They’re tattooed and have brutal haircuts – there’s a sense of Young Offenders about them. Suddenly, one stands guard while a group of lads grab one of the others, pulling his trousers down, and abusing him. After a while, the look-out emits a whistle and they return to their bench.
Next scene: they’re getting out the crosses and bible so that a priest can speak. For a fleeting moment, you think maybe they’re not in a juvenile detention centre after all, perhaps they’re seminaries. And then, nope. The priest says farewell to Daniel, the look-out from the previous scene, who’s about to be released. Daniel’s ambition was to become a priest himself, but his record has put paid to that.
The centre has got Daniel a job at a sawmill at the other end of the country, which for the purposes of this film is Poland. Stopping off at the local church for a little pray, he convinces them that he is actually a priest – with a little help of a dog collar and black robe he’d stolen from the Juvenile Detention Centre. They offer him a room for just one night, and then the proper priest falls ill. As it’s only a small village, Daniel takes over as “Father Tomasz” till they can find a replacement.
Cue Father Tomasz taking confession and using his mobile phone to find the correct catechism. As a woman confesses to hitting her son, he awards her a penance of taking him for a bike ride. It’s hard to be sure whether the villagers believe that he’s really a priest, but he says what most of them want to hear, for most of the time. What more can you expect of the clergy?
In the middle of the village there is a shrine with 6 photos of young people who recently died in a car accident. Actually, 7 people died in the accident, but one of those was the alcoholic driver, who isn’t spoken about round here. Father Tomasz tries to organise that the driver is given a church burial, thus losing all the goodwill that he’d built up – although he does retain the support of the sexton’s daughter Eliza, who has the hots for him.
This could have made a very bad comedy, but fortunately there is much more substance on display. Alongside the obvious stuff about morality, redemption and giving people a second chance, there are more fundamental questions being asked of the role of religion in a society, particularly one like modern Poland, where the Church has a dangerously prominent role.
Corpus Christi does not ridicule religion, but it does suggests that the role that religion plays, and the gap that it fills, is not simply spiritual. Daniel is allowed to become Father Tomasz because of a coming together of different needs. The fact that he is a flawed character is not really relevant. He is what the broken community needs to believe in, if it is to carry on.
Yet while the community embraces Father Tomasz, Daniel remains an outsider. This is clear from very early on where his sincere spiritual yearning is mixed with a need to take hard drugs and fuck random strangers in the toilet. Towards the end, he offers himself Christ-like with arms outspread and a naked upper torso, ready to take on the sins of the parish. To the end, he always stands slightly apart from the community that he serves.
Lest all this seem a little earnest, there are also some good jokes and a bit of bare knuckle fighting (although Daniel is more adept at whatever the Polish equivalent of the Glasgow kiss is). This is not just about existential doubt, but about young characters (Daniel is only 20) struggling through the life which they have been handed.
If this were an English film, it would have undoubtedly been written by Jimmy McGovern, the master of working-class Catholic guilt. That is not an insult. We are presented with nuanced characters, who we don’t exactly love, but we certainly understand. No-one is holy, everyone is flawed. But maybe they need more than a little faith to get by.