Though the title, synopsis, and main poster — which features a still of the protagonist in a rich green chasuble, face contorted in emotion as he calls out — suggest that Jan Komasa’s newest film Corpus Christi is about an individual’s battle with faith and religion, it is actually much more grand.
Premiering in North America at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Corpus Christi follows Daniel, a 20 year-old youth with convictions who can’t return to seminary school after being released from a youth correctional facility. He goes instead to a small Polish town to work at a carpenter’s workshop. But after spontaneously asserting that he is a priest, Daniel eventually takes over the town’s parish. It’s a premise that could have easily been a slapstick comedy, however Corpus Christi is anything but: it’s dark, tragic, and, most of all, pessimistic.
Daniel’s faith in Corpus Christi is unwavering; he never questions his beliefs. Quite the contrary, he remains a believer even after many injustices are committed against him and those around him.
Corpus Christi is about the systemic barriers that are built to stand in Daniel’s way of becoming what he truly wants to be. For instance, Daniel is told by the correctional facility’s priest — who he looks up to — that it is impossible for him to go to theology school.
It becomes apparent that Daniel is not simply a devout Christian. He is able to have profound effects, both positive and negative, on people through his sermons, yet he isn’t able to nurture them further in a scholarly and official environment because of the mistakes he made as a teenager. Komasa isn’t asking us how this is fair — he’s plainly showing us that it isn’t.
There is another movie that challenges the church in a similar way: First Reformed, a movie by Paul Schrader which screened at TIFF 2017. First Reformed centers on Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), who, after failing to console an environmental activist with depression, begins to question the politics within his own parish.
Similar to Daniel, Toller sees how the systemic infrastructure of the church actually stands in the way of pure preaching. For Daniel, his record prohibits him from going to seminary school. For Reverend Toller, his church having a close relationship with an industrialist puts limits on his ability to move his congregation toward stewardship, a religious ideal that suggests that humans are responsible for taking care of the earth.
Films like Corpus Christi and First Reformed are important because they detail the extensive politics that exist within what is supposed to be the most sacred of organizations. They outline the way in which greed, power, and money get in the way of the upkeep of justice and environmental sustainability.
These films remind us that social issues, such as the environment and the criminal justice system, can be viewed in more ways than one. By framing them through religion, Schrader and Komasa effectively assert that there is no excuse to plead ignorance or turn a blind eye. We must familiarize ourselves with our surroundings — be it politics, religion, education, or even entertainment — and then decide what kind of narrative is being presented, and by whom.
Corpus Christi and First Reformed ask us about personal responsibility and accountability, both to the institutions that we choose, and those that we do not. They prod the idea of responsibility to our surroundings, the environment, and the people that we interact with every day.
These philosophical questions are not answered in either of the films. Instead, Komasa and Schrader sow the seeds for us to examine our place in the web of society, and to subsequently decide to whom or what we owe our loyalty, and where owe rebellion.