What is faith but the believing of something into experience? That's the central quandary of Corpus Christi, Jan Komasa's unsettling and provocative just-Oscar-nominated rumination on truth that's finally opening here in New York this week. We meet Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia), a twenty-something criminal who fakes his way into being a priest in a small town in Poland, a plot which sounds like the set-up to a Sister Act sort of farce. Here instead, in Komasa and Bielenia's fingers, it picks at that fleshy nature of faith itself, skin sliding off with ease under our curious fingers.
Because of his criminal past Daniel can't get into the seminary, even though he's shown at the start to be inclined towards spiritual practice. He might turn his cheek to sex and violence but he is only human -- to forgive, divine. When he gets shipped out of the detention center to work in a saw-mill he instead wanders into the nearest town, swipes a white collar, and convinces the locals he's the replacement man o' cloth they've been waiting for. To their credit the townspeople are distracted, still deep inside the tragedy of a car accident that took several lives, a devastatingly high percentage for such a small place where everybody knows everybody. The community is weak, and lo, Daniel is strong.
And what leap makes him a Father or doesn't anyway? He's got the goods, having learned some sermons on the inside, googled some others, and he's got more than enough of the wild-eyed conviction needed to sell what he's selling -- whether it's a touch of madness or genuine godly fire is a question, one the film posits and probes often, and one buoyed by a cunning and charismatic performance from Bielenia, whose wide blue bug eyes storm the screen like an icy flood. You keep checking yourself watching him, unsure yourself even what to believe -- what is genuine and what is just what we want to move the story forward; you're deep in it with these folks who just need something to hold onto.
And what timelier examination is there than one of a needy populace grasping for above-ground aboard the first well-spoken charlatan they can get ahold of? We're a world of drowning victims, flailing skyward for a lifesaver -- we take what we can get when a face appears with answers, prayers, some solutions to the chaos. It might crumble to ash at the touch, it might explode into riot and fire and bloody mouths, but a moment's sure footing in this world is hard to come by; we take what we can get and let the unneeded pieces fall off the map where they may.