By Hannah Matis
Can a murderer be a minister? This is the question which haunts the eloquent, idiosyncratic exploration, The Minister and the Murder, by Stuart Kelly, of the strange case of the matricide and prison convert, James Nelson, and his subsequent petition to be ordained in the Church of Scotland in the 1970s. The case resonated, not least, for the almost classical theological dilemmas it posed to good Calvinists about the far-reaching nature of the grace of God, the forgiveness of sins, and the criteria to determine the nature and sincerity of true conversion.
To say more would spoil the book, but suffice it to say that I found myself in very similar territory watching the 2019 Polish film, Corpus Christi, directed by Jan Komasa (streaming on Kanopy). The film follows Daniel, a young man in juvenile detention who has gravitated strongly toward Christ and the Church amidst the brutalizing violence and chaos of the facility. Sponsored by his mentor, the priest there, Daniel is told that, because of his past, he cannot be accepted into any Catholic seminary, but he is released on parole to find work in a sawmill in a remote village. While the village is a beautiful antidote to the world from which he has just emerged, on arrival, the sawmill feels so similar in nature to juvie that Daniel takes temporary refuge in the village church, where with a single lie he finds himself posing, and then acting, as a priest.
Said to be based on real events, Corpus Christi dramatizes what has become a recent problem in Poland: drifters claiming to be Catholic priests in order, at least for a moment, to find stability and respectability in society. Brilliantly played by Bartosz Bielenia, the young Daniel runs the gamut from skinhead hellion to impassioned prophet. The film captures brilliantly both the aggression and the almost desperate, childlike vulnerability of those newly emerged from prison: already socialized and stigmatized in one institution, they are, to some extent, marked and fated to return. Because of his lack of professional training, as a priest Daniel finds himself preaching extempore, mimicking his prison mentor, and almost to his surprise discovers that he rather enjoys his new role, and that he is unexpectedly convincing in it.
The village has recently experienced a great tragedy: a head-on collision has left six people dead, including five teenagers. The adult in the second car, a former alcoholic, is generally assumed to have fallen off the wagon on the night of the incident; his widow has been shunned by the village and is living as a recluse. As Daniel gradually uncovers what happened on the night of the catastrophe, he finds himself attempting to lead a community through trauma even while an imposter.
One of the things that makes Corpus Christi so effective is its haunting ambivalence: deliberately restrained and unsentimental, there are only two instances in the entire film of “extra-diagetic” music; virtually all of the film is dialogue, and as the title implies, much of its meaning lies in small words and gestures. It is entirely possible to read the film in two ways simultaneously: of Daniel, named for a biblical visionary and prophet, as an effective minister or conduit of grace, even a Christ figure scapegoated by society; and as a self-interested convert caught up in his own act, his own Messiah complex. The film strongly suggests that a community can be so consumed with its own tragedy that, perhaps, only a sinner, an outsider, an imposter even, can break through.
Imposters always make for good social commentary. Corpus Christi is an unusually serious example of the genre; usually, imposter stories become wry comedies of manners, in which a film can make fun of the strange ways in which ordinary people react to certain professions or vocations, while gesturing toward the ideal which such professions or vocations are supposed to fulfill.
The 1999 Lawrence Kasdan film, Mumford, posited an amateur posing as a psychologist, suggesting that a good listener willing to be present, and even confrontational, to his patients would be more effective in changing lives than a narcissistic therapist dispensing elaborate technical diagnoses. In many ways the film seems blissfully dated now. In 2022, coronavirus has created a secondary, shadow pandemic in mental health, exacerbating the chronic shortage of mental health providers in America today — in particular those with the technical qualifications required to work patiently, over time, toward a balanced use of prescription medication. Good listening, while a wonderful thing, is no real substitute for this kind of hard work. What Mumford dimly foresaw, however, was that the isolation of modern American life, what it calls “the secret life” of individuals, has itself become a significant problem, with no obvious solution.
Released just as George H.W. Bush’s term was drawing to a close, as a completion of sorts of the Reagan era, the 1993 film Dave saw the Secret Service put a body double in the White House, who, aw shucks wouldn’t you know, turns out to be better at being president than the elected candidate. I have thought of Dave more than once in these last few terrible weeks, watching in something like awe the transformation of the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, former comic and voice of Paddington Bear, now addressing the U.S. Congress. It is perhaps not so surprising after all that a comic should be a highly effective and relatable communicator and advocate in the age of social media, or that his frail humanity should make such a stark contrast with the machine he is facing down, and which may yet be the death of him. Humor has a sense of proportion which an echoingly empty table and a convoy of tanks very clearly lacks. It has always been the social function of satire to drive us toward a shared moral baseline, even to see if we have one, and in such a politically divided society, humor is very serious business.
Amidst fevered messianic expectation, imposters become a kind of running thread through the gospels, rising in a crescendo as we move through Lent toward Holy Week. That Jesus is true Messiah, true king, true Caesar, is of course the gospels’ central rhetorical claim. That the world, as the Gospel of John would put it, does not recognize Jesus but only acknowledges one of its own, generates a shadow-satire in which Jesus must be serially, perpetually, tried and found wanting by the world — found, in short, to be an imposter. Liturgically, Lent juxtaposes Christ’s temptations in the desert at the beginning of his ministry with its culmination in Jerusalem, asking, implicitly, what that ministry would have looked like if Christ had succumbed to temptation but carried on preaching regardless. Would we have been more comfortable with a Christ who could turn stones to bread, or whom angels would have caught in midair? Christ’s temptations — to wrest power or control for himself, to force a sign from God — recur, of course, most powerfully in Gethsemane, throughout his trial, and on the cross.
Dorothy Sayers may have said it best, in The Man Born to Be King, that if we do not sense the thread of blackest comedy running through the last acts of the gospels we are missing something crucial. Christ’s death is a perversion of human justice on the deepest level. And yet it is, at the same time, an entirely fair and legal piece of procedure. David Lloyd Dusenbury’s recent book, The Innocence of Pontius Pilate (Hurst and Company, 2021), tracks the persistent and pernicious tendency for Christians, from Constantine and Eusebius onwards, to absolve Pilate from the responsibility of sentencing Christ, thereby shielding Rome from judgment and blame and further scapegoating the Jews.
In different ways, the gospels portray the confrontation between Pilate and Jesus as deeply epochal: Matthew through the ambiguous warning of Pilate’s wife, John through the substance of their conversation. At the heart of this conversation is whether or not Jesus is an imposter and what that of necessity would make Pilate, and by extension the empire which sent him. Is Jesus a king, and what, or whom, is he king of, and does that make him Rome’s rival? Dusenbury underscores how, far from exculpating Pilate, Pilate’s reluctant recognition that Jesus represents something or someone legitimate, “The king of the Jews,” only confirms his decision to sentence and execute Christ. It does not mitigate or moderate it. Barabbas, imposter messiah and true rebel, is released; Herod and Pilate recognize they play on the same team.
The imposter drama asks the audience to be aware and to question what, for them, confers legitimacy in vocation. Do the professional qualifications for a given job work, and would another path do just as well, or even better? How can an outsider transform, or threaten, a professional inner circle with its established codes, shibboleths, and procedures? The codes are there for a reason — and they nearly always do their job. In these dramas, the imposter nearly always fails in the end. But what is effected in the in-between, before the backlash, is what is most significant. For a moment, we catch anarchic glimpses of another world, another kingdom, working by different rules.