Stories about outsiders or imposters who come to a community and act as catalysts are always intriguing to us, which is why the idea is revisited so frequently in fairy tales, in literature, and in cinema. I think of Lawrence Kasdan’s so-so film Mumford, about a pretend psychologist who unburdens people of their secrets. And then there’s Lasse Hallström’s Chocolat, in which a mysterious confectioner hawks her delicacies in a French village during Lent, eventually loosening everybody up (for better or for worse). But what happens when a fake priest comes to town? This is the question posed by the Polish film Corpus Christi, recently nominated for an Academy Award for Best International Film. 

The answer is complicated.

Released abroad in 2019, Corpus Christi debuts this week at the Film Forum in New York City, and in additional markets in North America in the weeks ahead. It is a captivating drama that may be of spiritual benefit to the faithful. Corpus Christi has many dark moments, but it never degrades the Catholic faith. Nor is it cynical about the need for and value of ordained clergy, despite our decades-long clerical abuse scandals. Director Jan Komasa, carrying on the theologically informed cinematic tradition of another Pole, the late Krzystztof Kieslowski, explores the postmodern territory of self-identification and self-construction. What makes a priest? But also, what makes a person?

The film’s title is significant, not only because the action comes to a climax at the feast of Corpus Christi, but also for these questions of identity. Corpus Christi means “the Body of Christ”—the faithful assembled in a particular place, with Christ himself among them in the sacrament of the altar. The faithful, gathered around a bishop or priest, live and move and have their being in communion with God and each other. Catholics believe in the Real Presence, and this fact is ironically brought to the fore in a film about an imposter priest. 

Sometimes it takes a fake to remind us of what is authentic. 

Corpus Christi stars Bartosz Bielenia as Daniel, an angry twenty-year-old serving time in a juvenile prison in Warsaw. He has made dangerous enemies in lockup, but he has also found hope. He is friendly with the passionate servant priest, Fr. Tomasz (played by Lukasz Simlat), who teaches Daniel how to deal with his rage and employs him as an acolyte at Mass. Fr. Tomasz arranges for Daniel’s release, and Daniel begs for guidance about how an ex-convict might one day be able to go to seminary and receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. Fr. Tomasz insists such a path is closed. 

In his disappointment, Daniel promptly goes on a drugs and sex binge before boarding a bus to a remote town, where he is supposed to work at a sawmill. When he arrives, he makes straight for the local church instead. There Daniel meets the lovely but wayward Eliza (Eliza Rycembel), whose mother, Lidia (Aleksandra Konieczna), is the parish secretary and housekeeper. Lidia’s boss is the alcoholic pastor, a real priest, but something of a fake too. He quickly disappears. Before young Daniel knows it, he has a collar on and is reading up on how to hear confessions and say Mass.

Daniel styles himself “Fr. Tomasz” after his mentor, even stealing his sermon material. “I’m not here to pray mechanically,” Daniel says in his first homily, just as the real Fr. Tomasz had preached to Daniel and the other young inmates. 

Daniel’s ministry is a hit, and he seems genuinely in his element; but he quickly discovers that the town where he is playing church is full of people with open emotional wounds. Seven townspeople have died in a mysterious car accident, and bitterness and blame abound. As Daniel continues to touch the lives of people desperate for good pastoral care, his youth, lack of formation, and paranoia about being found out lead to serious mistakes. “Father” pokes his nose into the town’s business with the stolen valor of priestly authority, and he gets burned. 

The imitation sacraments that Daniel confects lack the spiritual nourishment both he and his people need; and yet, the results are not evil. Daniel’s counterfeit ministry eventually comes to an end, and we see that his time in town has, surprisingly, had a mostly Christlike form and function. People definitely do not appear to be praying mechanically, and the character of Lidia embodies this best. Initially she seems devout and self-assured—the gatekeeper to the Church’s life in her town. Later we discover she has deep hurt, and sins to atone for. By the end, she bids Daniel farewell with a sincere “God bless you,” and we finally see her working through her own pain to welcome one of the town’s outcasts back into communion.

Corpus Christi is not a feel-good film. It includes two extremely graphic sex scenes and depictions of drug use and prison violence that will be unsuitable for many viewers. But Bielenia’s performance as Daniel is unforgettable in its intensity, and Komasa’s direction is excellent throughout. 

Perhaps most refreshing of all is the film’s depiction of Poland itself—a country with plenty of modern troubles, yet still rooted more firmly in Catholicism than many people may realize. Daniel is a newcomer in a small town, but American viewers are the true outsiders in a place that still feels a little like Christendom. Despite some of Corpus Christi’s dark subject matter, it is a joy to see a contemporary film in which the Church is truly at the center of people’s lives.

I came away from Corpus Christi deeply impressed, thanking God for the Church, and for all the good and faithful priests in it.