I recently had the opportunity to speak by phone with Jan Komasa, director of the Polish film Corpus Christi, which is on the shortlist of films being considered for an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Feature. The film is the story of a young man (Daniel) who impersonates a priest in a small town parish. The film is due to be released in the U.S. in the spring of 2020.
First off, congratulations on making the Oscar shortlist for Best Foreign Language Feature.
Thank you. Thank you. It came as a huge surprise, out of 90-some films. Yeah, a lot of people were working on this, at least to get it out to the members. Getting through a huge number of films, it’s a huge obstacle without a very big budget, because we don’t have a huge budget for promotion. We’re very happy.
I see the film’s done well at film festivals. How has it been received in Poland?
So far, so good. About 1.4 million people saw it in cinemas, so the turnout is great. As far as I know the sales agent has sold it to around 40 countries, I believe. So it’s going great, for people with money.
That wasn’t my purpose to be honest, in the first place. I just wanted to make it sincere. To be honest, I’ve made some blockbusters already here in Poland, so I sort of know how it is. I’m not interested in big success. I’m interested in success, but not financial success. All of this, it might be overwhelming, but I don’t feel like I care that much about it.
This is a film that’s based on real event. Could you say a bit about how you heard of the story and made a film about it?
My scriptwriter, Mateusz Pacewicz, he was the one who heard about this. When he was eighteen years old he became obsessed with people pretending to be priests or people of faith in Poland—people of faith as officials of church. As it turned out there are several cases each year of imposters—fake priests. Not a lot people know about it because the Church is not happy with it either—being so easy to manipulate people with just wearing priests’ robes and collar. There’s such respect for priest, for Church, here in Poland, that people don’t ask you for credentials. They don’t check you out. They just believe that you’re not going to fool them or cheat them. Especially in rural areas.
So I didn’t know about it. We’ve heard some crazy stories about imposters every now and then. There was one case in 2011 where a guy was a fake priest for four months [including] May and June, which is during [the feast of] Corpus Christi, and he helped organize Corpus Christi in one of the small villages in rural Poland. That was the basis of Mateusz’s article in the newspaper. First it was a fiction short story, then he wrote it into an article. Thanks to the article he was approached by one of the top producers here in Poland who wanted to acquire rights for the story. And Mateusz decided to write it himself, with the help of the producer.
They found me and sent me the script. I was fascinated by it, but not too much. I sent them my commentary on the film and the process. They fell silent for two or three months. After three months they sent me the revised version script, and it turned out they implemented ninety percent of my comments. It fit well with the script. I felt very, very lucky and I should appreciate it because while reading it I saw my film, but I also met this amazing guy, Mateusz, who I’ve already made another feature film with, and it’s finished.
What struck me with the film—with the project—at the beginning was, I’m Christian and my biggest fear—I have a huge family. I have three siblings. My parents, and my wife has four siblings. Everyone married. Almost everyone has kids. So when we sit at the table there’s thirty of us. My biggest fear is that—the family was always like a bubble. I felt secure in it. The family is like number one subtheme in my films. I have another project about family. So, I love family sagas like The Godfather. My biggest fear came when—I feel that around 2014-15 a huge national socio-political change came to Poland, not only to Poland, I could feel it going on everywhere, leaning towards ultra-conservatism. There’s been many reasons for it. But what happened with nations, with continents, is there turns out there’s a huge gap between tribes. There are tribes. That was the first thing to notice: there are tribes. The other thing is the gaps between tribes are huge. A gap of that size simply doesn’t allow people to come together and talk freely with each other.
Unfortunately it affected my family as well. The divide was not only cities and countries and streets, but families, and my family was one of them. My biggest fear was that one day it would all blow up, and people who were very close you feel are strangers. When I read the script for Corpus Christi I felt like it totally nails it—this fear of one community, which craves some kind of union, but it just fails. The community is broken, fractured. People know that and feel the hurt, but it’s just too much. It’s just too difficult for them to come together, to get over it.
The idea of a stranger coming to town and trying to do good, spread love, sort of learn the language of conversation using basic Christian values and approach—so Christian that sometimes it might be unheard of, even politically in the official Christian Church—at least in some places in Poland—that it might be revolutionary. Which is something, I think, is very basic today. Like, let’s just talk and come together. We’re not going to kill each other over differences. We’re all one species, so let’s just talk and do something about it. We don’t have to agree about everything. And the idea of having a healer, even when he’s fake, for me at least, was revolutionary and thrilling and refreshing. It just refers to a lot of my fear—and dreams at the same time.
One of the things about Daniel is that he’s broken too. When he comes to this community, he understands brokenness.
That’s right. Actually what’s tricky about this script, it might be very effective when it comes to creating paradox, which I really like in cinema. It’s great food for thought, if it’s written well. And here I think it was by Mateus remarkably well. We have two films in one. One film is about an imposter—a guy who uses his fake identity. I can easily imagine a film only about that. But there’s another film here about fractured community. I can also easily imagine a film about somebody, let’s say a real priest, but young, replacing the old priest at the parish and he comes and discovers there’s a mystery and a challenge, and he heals people. But here the two films are setting side by side together in one project and it gives a huge opportunity to play with paradoxes.
So for example, as you said, you have a broken person, who thanks to his brokenness, he relates to the broken community. We have a fake priest—somebody who cheats and lies. But at the same time he is able to squeeze out the truth from people. We have a patient from a juvenile detention center, and he runs a therapy on people who are not patients, but apparently behave like patients. We have a community which feels rejected by the overall society, and they don’t hesitate to reject other people too. Daniel is a broken character to start with, and he knows the bitter feeling of rejection himself. So when he finds that rejected people reject others, he finds the black sheep in the community, and he feels for her. He knows how it is to be out of the community—to be condemned by all. His mission becomes to get them together. I found it thrilling when I read it, and very rare in a feature film, that so many layers are conversing with perception and soul at the same time.
I saw in an interview that you think of this as a Protestant film. How so?
Protestant meaning probably a cultural thing. Poland is predominantly Catholic. Protestant in the way, at least stereotypically, in the way priests are with their community. In my understanding, there’s a certain wall between the priest and the community. At least here in Poland. The Protestant approach seems closer to people. Not every Protestant approach, obviously, but the barriers between someone who’s a priest, someone who’s a pastor and his community seem less severe, with less restrictions. I’m not saying there’s none because it’s impossible. It’s a function. It’s a social function, a church function. So it always creates some obstacles, obviously. But there’s a feeling that priests are not like regular people.
I was growing up with this, surrounded by this strong Catholicism. During Communism, Poland was very religious, because it was religion, but for fifty years it was religion that kept us going as a nation. Churches were the only places where we could gather freely—at least that’s what we thought. We felt we were independent in church. So a lot of intellectuals, people who are artists, people who today we would say they’re more affiliated with leftists—they found their home in church. That was the only place they could feel free—more free. After fifty years, when freedom was regained the Church sort of shelter wasn’t needed anymore. There’s a lot of people who after thirty years of being free as a country, we feel like the Church detached from the society to a huge extent. I feel the detachment is so great now, and I’m telling you, this as a Catholic, the Church became politically affiliated, especially with the right wing. They let nationalists, with the flag and the hate rhetoric, through its gates.
Suddenly, for people like me it became too hard to find our place in church. Not to say we were super active before, but still we felt—I felt too—that maybe, I don’t know, we became like two different species, tribes, too much. I just couldn’t find a relationship with church—my relationship with church—that significant. So I’m not the only one. But it doesn’t mean I’m not spiritual. I’m talking about me because it’s easier. I’m not generalizing. But I feel like I’m an example of many, many people who feel the same way. I feel like the community is still spiritual, as it was. Nothing changed in that matter. People need to talk about fundamental values and the sense of it all, not only philosophically and intellectually.
Since a lot of us felt we were sort of alone with this, but we don’t find any partner in Church anymore—the Catholic Church—we started to look for alternatives. That was probably Protestant church, which is not significant in Poland, became an option for a lot of people. A lot of now talk about Protestant church before talking about leaving church at all. I think that probably why Protestant church feels like the approach people are missing.
But that’s probably why this film, at least in Poland, was called a Protestant approach film. Like what is a guy who just wants to be closer with people without building too many walls around him because of the office he wields, just breaks barriers and wants to be very direct with people and more down to earth, almost like a pastor. Of course, it’s another generalization. To be honest, as I’ve said, we’re predominantly Catholic, so not much Protestant church in Poland, compared with knowledge as American about Protestant church. It’s complicated. I’m not an expert, but I feel like the Protestant approach is a bit more direct.
One of the lines that I find important in the film, and for me the theme of the film, is when Father Tomasz tells Daniel, “Each of us is a priest of Christ”. I thing that is often times seen as a very Protestant concept. We are all priests, not just the one who is designated as priest.
Okay. I think you’re right. I think that’s the theme. We don’t have to be designated to share Christ’s word, right?