Director Jan Komasa discusses the bizarre true story that inspired Corpus Christi, how a bad audition gave him an epiphany about the film’s main character, and his aesthetic choices. The film was one of our Best Acquisition Title picks at TIFF19, and has since been picked up for North American distribution by Film Movement. Read our TIFF review here.
When I saw Corpus Christi at TIFF, I called it the “Vicar of Grantchester meets Suits, only darker because this is Poland.” Little did I know that impersonating a priest was not just a fictional flight of fancy but an actual phenomenon plaguing Poland, which was the starting point for the film.
The film opens in a juvenile detention centre where we meet Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia), who agrees to stand watch while fellow prisoners violently attack one of the other prisoners. We soon learn that this seeming ‘thug’ desperately wants to be a priest, but has his hopes dashed when the centre’s priest informs him his criminal record will prevent him from ever becoming a man of the cloth. When Daniel gets out of prison, heading toward a job at a sawmill, he stops at the local church where he claims to be a priest. Before he knows it, he’s being asked to take charge of the local parish.
What ensues is both funny and harrowing. It’s funny watching Daniel repeat the sermon we heard him hear in juvie to the local community. It’s also funny watching him get excited about preaching, doing the “hip hop” version of a sermon, while his youthful charm makes him quickly popular with the locals. And then, of course, there’s the hypocrisy: the priest who’s not a priest has sex, and yet, unlike the previous priest, is neither a drunk nor cruelly judgmental. He may not have trained as a priest, but even in his own hypocrisy, Daniel’s behaviour and values are ultimately more Christian than those anointed to uphold the faith.
But it’s soon revealed that the town is still recovering from a tragedy with grief so great, all they know how to do is blame other people — a coping strategy that the previous priest supported. Daniel, however, empathizes both with the people grieving and with the person they’ve ostracized as a scapegoat. Ironically, his ability not to judge people allows him to help them acknowledge their own hypocrisies and heal. This is aided by the local girl about Daniel’s age who is intrigued by the young priest, and encourages him to help her heal the community.
Before the film’s US Premiere at the AFI Film Festival, I talked to director Jan Komasa about the genesis of the project, how a bad audition gave him an epiphany about the film’s main character (Daniel), and how the film’s aesthetic served to trap the audience in the same way that Daniel feels trapped.
Seventh Row (7R): Where did the idea for Corpus Christi come from?
Jan Komasa: It’s all based on real events. It started with our scriptwriter, who wasn’t a scriptwriter at the time. He was a student in high school when he became fascinated with cases of people pretending to be priests or impersonating priests in Poland. Apparently, this is a thing in Poland: every year, we have several cases. I didn’t know that.
People are sort of drawn to church. They feel some kind of fascination with the robes, the collar, the esteem of being positioned as a priest, as a spiritual leader, in Poland, in small communities.
This case was one of the many cases researched by Mateusz Pacewicz, the scriptwriter. He wrote an article on one particular case about a guy named Patrick. Patrick was pretending to be a priest in a small community in Poland for four to five months during Corpus Christi, the Christian holiday, which takes place around May/June. In the original case, there was no juvenile detention centre, no accident in a village. This was all added. But the core of the story, the passion of the main character, stayed.
In the original story, Patrick was uncovered as a fake priest. People in the village were not only feeling cheated but also very confused because they were very religious. They didn’t know if their children were actually baptized. Or what about the sacraments he gave them? Were they married or not?
They started to write letters to the Vatican. The Vatican ran an investigation and ultimately decided, to everyone’s surprise, that it’s all legal — even though he’s a fake priest — because it was done in an authentic, by-the-book way. But Patrick had to be excommunicated, expelled from church. He can’t take part in any sacrament. He can’t have a church wedding anymore. For church, pretending to be a spiritual Christian representation, it’s the biggest canonic sin you can make.
In our case, we added themes of a juvenile detention centre. The girl who’s in the film [who befriends Daniel and works with him to confront the town with its hypocrisy] wasn’t in the original story. The sextant, the conflict… Everything was added and changed. We wanted to keep it as distant as possible from the original story in order not to offend anybody. But also to talk about community.
When Mateusz wrote this article, he was approached by our mutual friend, producer and writer Krzysztoff Rak. He’s pretty established in Poland. He had huge successes with his previous films. When he came across this article in this newspaper, he wanted to write the story himself. Mateusz said, “Actually, I’m the only person who knows a lot about this, because I’ve researched it. Let me write it myself.”
With Krzysztof’s supervision, Mateusz wrote the script. They sent it to me and some other directors. I gave them my notes, and they liked it. After two or three months, they sent the revised version of the script. And here it is.
7R: So what made you want to tell this story in particular?
Jan Komasa: Out of many stories I read and had a chance to get my hands on, this one was exceptional in many ways. It talks about bubbles, fractured communities, and closed societies — worlds which collide but don’t communicate or understand each other. They don’t talk to each other.
I come from the city. I’m a city animal. I dwell in cities and have all my life. The script was the only time I felt something different toward the countryside. I don’t usually go to the countryside. It’s not that I don’t like it; I just don’t have time. My life is connected with everything in the city.
By people in my liberal city bubble, the countryside is perceived — and actually it is — very conservative, sticking to values like family, god, religion, social structures where you have to be very aware of where you are on the ladder. People are watching other people, how they perform and behave. Everyone has their eyes locked on everyone else. It’s very conservative, very religious. I witness all the time, every day, this feeling of polarization in the society in many countries, not only in Poland — in Europe, the United States.
This project, when it came to me, told the story from a different bubble. But not only a different bubble, but a different perspective than a city perspective. I felt that this film is not judging anybody. It’s not made from the standpoint of someone from the liberal bubble looking down on people from a different bubble, judging and assessing them. It just shows people. I feel that it’s worthy of digging into it and telling a story about a guy who just wants to make people come together in a community.
Reading the script, I felt like I was reading two movies at the same time. One was about a guy who pretends to be a priest, a movie about roles and identities. The other one was about a community that was fractured; people who are rejected don’t hesitate to reject other people, as well. Magically, these two films communicate with each other. Your brain sort of connects them, and some amazing meaning squeezes out of the story.
There are paradoxes in the script that are very smart and very well thought out. For instance, it’s a film about a liar who tells the truth about the community. It’s a film about a patient who runs the therapy on people from the village. You have so many paradoxes in the film thanks to this unique structure. I knew I had something very extraordinary, and I was so happy to have it. I consider myself very, very lucky.
7R: It’s funny because the fact that Daniel has been in juvenile detention disqualifies him from becoming a priest, and yet that’s also exactly why he’s so good at the job, because he’s capable of empathizing with making mistakes. He’s the only one in the town who doesn’t judge people.
Jan Komasa: There are a lot of things that are unspoken in the film. We don’t know a thing about his past. The only thing we know is that when he was sixteen, he most probably killed somebody unwittingly. We only know the victim died in hospital after being in a coma for a few days. We don’t know anything about his family.
He leaves the juvenile detention centre. Usually, the first thing people do is they have somebody waiting for them. That’s not the case here. He just goes on the loose.
He’s nobody, and he wants to become somebody during the film. He finds a community which needs change and is craving a breath of fresh air. So they match together, and they help each other. Even though [being a priest is] a fake identity, at least he has an identity, and the community has a healer. It’s a paradox, but it happened in real life. These types of energies come together.
7R: How did you approach developing the aesthetic of the film?
Jan Komasa: Piotr Sobociński Jr, who is the cinematographer of Corpus Christi, the moment he read the script, he said, ‘It’s easy.’ The moment that he’s [Daniel’s] nobody, it’s all bleak. And I see it in Baltic sea colours, like Scandinavian, that type of weather you have with Baltic states like Sweden, Finland, Poland, Germany, Denmark. This is the palette: grey, blue, green, but a lot of grey.
The moment he starts to become somebody, or feels a sort of empowerment, the sun seeps through the clouds. The sun is coming out. As simple as that is, that was an idea that we were able to wrap this whole film around.
The more Daniel becomes somebody, the more he is empowered, there’s more color in the frame. We only used the colour red once, on Martha. She is this extra element which changes the whole storyline, and she becomes crucial. The story centres around her and how she manages to bring the new priest, Daniel, to what’s really hurting in the society. She shows him the places in the society, in this new world, this small closed bubble, which she thinks somebody needs to heal. She reveals wounds to Daniel.
Everything changes during his empowerment. Everything becomes brighter, more saturated, more light coming into the frame, more colour. Every time he is met with his past, the colour is diminished, as if it was escaping or hiding in a cave. Colours are emotions. We perceive them viscerally.
I worked with teenagers for 12 years at these facilities which help teenagers with addiction. I made a documentary about it 12 years ago. I know the major thing, with children, teenagers, and young people with their addictions and issues with the law: they have a huge problem with auto-aggressive behaviours. In a lot of instances, they aren’t able to communicate with their own feelings and emotions. They don’t necessarily know how to recognize their true emotions. They mistake their anger for having a good time. It’s how they’ve designed it in their brain.
There’s no colour [in the juvenile detention centre at the beginning of the film]. A lot of people who leave a juvenile detention centre are feeling emotionally detached, bleak. The more involved in the storyline our character is, the more colour and the more emotion he feels and connects to.
I wanted to obtain this feeling of being trapped in the frame like the main character is trapped in his brain because of what he did in the past. He can’t forgive himself for what he did. He can’t connect to himself. So the camera doesn’t move. It moves only, slowly, approaching the main character when he feels something different, like a certain calling, and finally, his soul is craving for more. These moments were exceptional, and I felt the urge to emphasize with a little bit of camera movement here and there. Basically, the camera is static and still. It just watches. We have only two shots with handheld camera. Those two shots are filled with aggression.
7R: Can you tell me about the sound in the film? I was really struck by the sound in the opening scene which is this high-pitched sawing sound, and then you hear similar pitches in the score.
Jan Komasa: Since we knew the film was going to be a French-Polish production, we knew we were going to hire a composer from France. There was a composer, Evgueni Galeperine, who is one of the biggest talents out there. He comes from Russia. He was working with Andrey Zvyagintsev on Loveless. He made a film with François Ozon [By the Grace of God]. He made a film with Luc Besson. He’s a big name in Europe.
We sent him the film, even though there were little chances of him [agreeing to take part in] the project because of his position, and he said, “Yes, I’m going to do it.” He really liked the project. He really liked the first cut we sent him.
His idea for the sound at the beginning was to use, in a minimalistic way, the sawmill sound, and combine it with the soundtrack. He actually used a broken organ from a church. He played with this a little bit to distort the sound. There’s a squeaking sound throughout the whole film, which makes us a bit uncomfortable. We don’t know whether it’s a sound design, sound effect, or a soundtrack, which is great. He plays with it a lot of the time. That’s why it’s so exceptional. It’s something basically being conceived in Daniel, and we are just watching it unfurl throughout the whole film.
I wanted the sound and music to work hand in hand. They are complementary. They complete the emotional inner landscape of the main character because we are watching his face 90% of the time. It helps us feel a bit more, even though his feelings are very diminished, very small, very nuanced. He doesn’t feel big emotions because he has a hard time grappling with them at all. He doesn’t know emotions; he doesn’t recognize them. It’s all small. But we were looking for something which is, maybe not epic, but different, for the last sequence.
Evgueni played a piece from his archive for me. One of them with a violin was a cue in the film that I really, really liked. Leviathan, by Andrey Zvyagintsev, was one of the big inspirations for the film. I love that film. This is the cue they were meant to use in Loveless, but Andrey couldn’t find a place for it in the film. So I was so happy I was able to use that cue in our film under the last sequence.
7R: At the beginning of the film, Daniel is standing guard while the other boys in the juvenile detention centre are being violent. He’s complicit in what they’re doing. And at the end of the film, he’s the victim of a similar kind of violence.
Jan Komasa: He’s complicit. He’s in collusion with these boys, but he’s not the direct perpetrator. We were trying to bring nuance to the arc of the character.
It’s something I learned in the casting. When we were casting for Daniel, I gave two tasks to everybody who auditioned. One task was to conduct a sermon in their own words. The other task was to express anger toward the camera as if they were a thug, a hoodlum. I was looking for the range of the actor from the saint to the sinner. Most of these guys were great at one of these things. It was 50-50. Some of them were great as priests; some of them were great as thugs.
When Bartosz Bielenia [who plays Daniel in the film] showed up, he wasn’t great at any of them. We were looking for a guy who’s great at both. But Bartosz opened my eyes. This character is like 50% of this and 50% of that. He’s not 100% because his personality is not yet established. He’s in collusion in the script. Daniel is not a priest, and he’s not a thug. He’s something else.
Identity-wise it was very tough to find the balance. We could easily show a main character who is a thug, who suddenly becomes a priest, and then is a priest-thug. Here, it’s neither. He’s neither a thug nor a priest. He just is who he is. He finds his way into his real self.
7R: What was the process of working with Bartosz Bielenia to develop this character and direct him on screen?
Jan Komasa: For me, as the director, that was the hardest part. We had to be very aware of every step of his transformation. From day one, when I met Bartosz, and we started to work on the film, we started to design the character’s journey throughout the film. Not only does Bartosz have to portray Daniel, but Daniel has to portray a priest. So Bartosz is portraying two other people at the same time. In every scene, the two people have to progress.
Not only does Daniel progress as a person, but also as a priest, in his impersonation. His first sermon is a copy-paste from Father Thomas. His second sermon, as a priest, is the hip hop version. There’s a lot of gesturing. He’s all around the place like a rock star. People clap in the church. The third one is his most intimate one, coming straight from the heart. It’s his “I am a murderer” sermon.
It’s not only Daniel’s progression, but Daniel as a priest’s progression. It was pretty complicated. We ended up, in the film, with twentysomething layers of Daniel.