Producers: Aneta Hickinbotham and Leszek Bodzak   Director: Jan Komasa   Screenplay: Mateusz Pacewicz   Cast: Bartosz Bielenia, Eliza Rycembel, Aleksandra Konieczna, Tomasz Ziętek, Leszek Lichota, Łukasz Simlat, Zdislaw Wardejn and Barbara Kurzaj   Distributor: Film Movement

Grade:  B

A ne’er-do-well posing as a clergyman is an old narrative cliché, usually treated humorously’ but it’s employed in deadly serious fashion in Jan Komasa’s searing drama about a young ex-con, just released from prison, who pretends to be a priest in a village in desperate need of spiritual renewal in the aftermath of a local tragedy.  Recently nominated for an Oscar as best international (or “foreign language”) film, it lost to “Parasite,” but remains a powerful piece.

Daniel (charismatic Bartosz Bielenia) is introduced as an inmate at a prison for serious juvenile offenders (it’s later revealed that he killed a man).  Like many in such circumstances, he’s found faith during his incarceration, and serves as assistant to the chaplain, Father Tomasz (Łukasz Simlat), who appreciates the young man’s devotion.  But when asked by Daniel whether he might be accepted at a seminary after his release, the priest says no.

Daniel is paroled, and assigned a job at a distant sawmill.  When he gets to his destination, however, he visits the village church instead, where he encounters Marta Sosińska, a surly young woman who’s the daughter of the parish sexton, Lidia (Aleksandra Konieczna).  He introduces himself to them as a priest, Father Tomasz, and they in turn take him to the pastor (Zdislaw Wardejn), an elderly man who explains that he’s unwell asks him to take over for him while he goes off for treatment.  The newly-“ordained” Father Tomasz agrees.

But he has stepped into a situation that will test his faith and his ability to navigate his new duties.  He has to resort to a phone search to find out the proper ritual for conducting confessions, and wing it when it comes to giving sermons.  But his youthful energy and ebullient style, combined with his obviously sincere, if often peculiar, preaching style win most of the congregation over.

His principles are tested, however, when the mayor (Leszek Lichota), who also owns the sawmill, approaches Daniel to collaborate with him on business matters, and when Marta’s interest in him becomes something other than platonic.  He will also be faced with the possibility of being unmasked when a fellow ex-con (Tomasz Ziętek) shows up, demanding money to keep his secret.

His most pressing moral dilemma, however, involves a spiritual crisis plaguing the town, one reminiscent of that which faced the insurance man in “The Sweet Hereafter.”  A group of young people, including Marta’s brother, had recently been killed in an auto accident that parishioners blame on a local man, also dead, whom they claim was driving drunk when he crashed into the youngsters’ car.  They’ve set up a makeshift shrine to the victims, and have ostracized the dead man’s widow (Barbara Kurzaj), not even allowing her husband’s ashes to receive a proper burial.  Lidia is among the protestors, although Marta has information that sheds a very different light on the circumstances of the accident.  Daniel’s attempts to bridge the gap will lead to a mini-rebellion against him even as his imposture threatens to unravel.

“Corpus Christi” is a tad overlong, and some might feel that it overplays the theme of half-truths and deception as it proceeds, especially in terms of last-act revelations and reversals.  An ambiguous (and cruelly violent) coda will also disturb and confuse some viewers.

But Bielena’s astonishing performance, combining apparent piety with calculation, demands attention, the supporting cast is excellent throughout, and Komasa’s direction is assured.  The somber tone fashioned by Marek Zawierucha’s production design, Piotr Sobociński Jr.’s cinematography and Przemyslaw Chruscielewski’s editing is also an asset.

This is a film about religion, but hardly a candidate for “faith-based” categorization.  It takes a premise that’s often been used for comedy and employs it to shattering emotional effect.