Corpus Christi – Edinburgh Filmhouse

Directed by Jan Komasa

Written by Mateusz Pacewicz

Taking inspiration from real events, Corpus Christi, named after the Christian feast the film builds towards, centres around the spiritual awakening Daniel receives while serving time in a Polish detention centre for youths. Upon release, Daniel wishes to repent; in search of absolution, he desires to become a priest but is unable to do so due to his criminal record. Unwilling to work in a sawmill for the rest of his days and stumbling upon a chance encounter with an ailing vicar, Daniel takes on the name of the prison chaplain, performing sacramental rights in the vicar’s absence and he begins to find a sense of forgiveness in a village suffering from a tragedy.

As fragile and unsettling as he is charming, Bartosz Bielenia carries Corpus Christi, there is no question about this. Side characters play their part, but all receive a lift in scenes they share with Bielenia. Closer to the start of his career than the end, Bielenia commands a measure of emotions which is enviable to even seasoned experts. Using a concoction of troubled confusion, anxiety and lashings of aggression, he still achieves Pacewichz’s humour in the script in a natural way with co-star Eliza Rycembel.

The film is a rare piece which communicates much by saying little; few issues are drawn out or laid bare to the audience. The symbolic struggle of political over religious influence or power is not spelt out, but rather proffered up for our interpretation. A crucial idea is that no matter the influence office possesses, only one form of authority can force the other to, quite literally, bend the knee. Power-play, particularly masculine, is intrinsic to the plotline. In recognising Daniel’s influence over the community, Leszek Lichota’s Mayor of the town gives a subdued performance, resonating with Komasa’s stringent realism in direction. There are multiple opportunities for melodrama, for exaggeration and outright antagonists, but thankfully we never fall into these pitfalls.

With reverence, even while acknowledging the declining faith in Europe and that many churchgoers do so out of habit rather than belief, Mateusz Pacewichz’s script refrains from petty jabs at religion. Instead, it allows commentary of the church’s apparent confusion over redemption, confession and forgiveness. Sexton for the vicarage – Aleksandra Konieczna as Lidia – is the representative of the judgement which dictates these communities, with a sense of self-conflicting authority, which hinders future generations’ opportunities to grow in this brutal coming-of-age drama.

Corpus Christi is a quiet film, unafraid of holding both the moment and indeed the shot. It paces itself to the beat of the audience’s breath, stilling in the poignant moments of death or reflection, with cuts occurring in quick succession via the introduction of club-anthems, drug abuse and strobe lighting. Piotr Sobocinski Jr’s cinematography works, but struggles to find a reflective vision for the film, unsure of how to stylise the aesthetic. In aiming for realism, the film has choice moments of spectacle, usually at the hand of effects, lighting or performance, rather than editing or camera work. There’s a blur, which complements interior shots of smoke or incense, but one can’t help feel the hollow coldness of the blues and greys aren’t being used to full effect, excluding, of course, an uncomfortably brutal climax.

Viscerally, the conclusion absconds from the perverse silence which has set the pace before it. A gut-punch, this finale is a shattering of the illusory happy ending, a reminder of the film’s subcutaneous message that the young are the ones paying for the attitudes of established communities. Following his previous feature film Warsaw 44, Corpus Christi is principal evidence of Jan Komasa’s spectacular ability as a filmmaker, in and outside of Poland. The elements are there, and further collaboration with Bartosz Bielenia is hopefully on the cards as the two evolve together.

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/corpus-christi/

Hitch Hike to Hell

Written by John Buckley

Directed by Irvine Berwick

Ah, the exploitation genre of cinema. A bounty of films which attempt success, or creativity, through touchy, niche or even lurid events and narratives. They often range from B-movie schlock to the entertaining and even impressive in design, to the downright absurdly offensive in how little hindsight the filmmakers take into consideration. Then there are these middle-ground ones; the attempted video nasties which can’t even get their hands dirty.

Borrowing heavily, chiefly from the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock, and of course, notorious pieces of rape-revenge and hitchhiking sub-genres (The Last House on the Left, The Hitch-HikerIrvin Berwick and John Buckley had an image for Hitchhike to Hell, an exploitative movie depicting the rape and murder of women who run away from home. Guising it with the ‘moral’ compass circulating in America at the time, of young girls leaving conservative (even abusive) homes and finding themselves assaulted by men on the highways.

After his sister flees the family home, devastating his mother, Howard cannot comprehend why anyone would choose to run away from home and ‘hurt’ their parents. This includes those leaving genuine life-threatening, abusive homes, and in the film’s most teeth-gritting scene, a fourteen-year-old runaway. Working as a laundromat deliveryman, Howard begins a life of picking up hitchhikers, and ‘punishing’ them for their cruel actions.

Arrow Film’s dedication to re-releasing films is a triumph, with successes in bringing treasures to the public and breathing fresh life into undead classics. Here though, they’ve managed an impressive feat – producing a 30-minute documentary extra and further piece, Road to Nowhere: Hitchhiking Culture Goes to Hell by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas which far exceed the film in terms of production, intent and even lampoon Buckley’s flaccid attempt at concealing his bias towards women.

Even more staggering is that while Harold’s overall performance redeems paint drying, the writing behind this Bates-light character contains relative decency with a slow, categorical depiction of a suffocating mother-son relationship, at least substantially for films of this ilk. Robert Gribbin’s Howard, who flips so frequently from good Samaritan to serial killer in the mere mention of family problems encroaches on ludicrous in depiction. Whereas the amateur performances from the women he abducts make for an unsettling realness to the crimes, Gribbin’s ‘turmoil’ at his actions and his love for his ‘Mamma’ feels hollow. By no means, in-depth, or even redemptive, Berwick’s direction at least seems to attempt multiple dimensions to the narrative, with Russel Johnson turning in the only decent performance as Captain J.W. Shaw.

Hitchhike to Hell fails to delve into the depravity others within the genre submerge themselves. Is this a positive? Not necessarily. While it means we thankfully abstain from morose depictions of sexual violence, it trivialises the matter with how little care is taken. The depictions of rape, set to hideously inappropriate music, become comedic in poor acting and tone, and this isn’t A Clockwork Orange, these score choices are not the decisions made for shock or atmospheric tone, there’s just no thought process here at all. 

Hitchhike to Hell tries capitalising on the exploitation genre it so desperately wants to be a part of but fails to be, and in failure brands itself as even worse a film by its inability to go that extra mile, to be creative or obscene. It commits a cardinal sin of any exploitation film – it’s dull – and for all the things of which it could have been guilty, this is perhaps the worst. While Arrow has once more released a well-maintained cut of the film, keeping the scratches, grit and grime of the film’s footage, it’s one of the video ‘nasties’ which should have been left at the roadside.

Available on Blu-ray now.

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/hitch-hike-to-hell/

The Two Popes – Edinburgh Filmhouse

Directed by Fernando Meirelles

Written by Anthony McCarten

With an audience of around 1.2 billion (give or take), Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic Church, arguably has the globe’s largest draw of worshippers, certainly exceeding actors, directors and writers. Some welcome his influence in an age where many criticise the Church over its inability to ordain women, its archaic views of sexuality and failures to tackle bureaucracy within. His predecessor, disagreeing virulently with Francis, may have just been the man to recognise this ability. Now if that isn’t a sound premise for one of the industry’s esteemed biopic writers, then we don’t know what is.

Delving into a subject many would resign to niche, Anthony McCarten’s The Two Popes squeezes each ounce of enthralling drama from one of organised religion’s most frustratingly difficult modern periods. With little surprise either, given McCarten’s previous work with award-winning biopics The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody. An excavator of character, McCarten is an alchemist of biographies, homing in on aspects which are enticing for audiences, offering insight at the underbelly, though never to the off-putting degree. The same is true for the lives of Pope Benedict XVI and then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who would later become Pope Francis following Benedict’s resignation.

Moving from the stage, it’s evident that McCarten’s screenplay still rings of its theatrical counterpart, particularly in the staging and framework of Anthony Hopkins’ conversations with Jonathan Pryce. Much of the film is centred on dialogue, discussing world issues and individual moralities. Naturally, Pryce is in his element, and it’s clear to see in his movements that Meirelles’ has put some form of staging into his direction. Visually, the film is superb, entirely cinematic in thought-process, Mark Tildesley’s design work gorgeously reflecting the hollow emptiness of the Vatican halls.

The two stars retain the English language, for the most part, dipping into Latin or German when appropriate, but the physical transformations are spot-on. Particularly Hopkins static, open-armed frame of an ailing leader, coming to terms with his redundancy in a fast-moving world. It stretches into the comedic elements, Hopkins’ Pope Benedict XVI, a man noted for his less empathetic approach, with a profoundly German wit ricochets well against Pryce’s more conventional pun making, the two naturally flowing from one to the other.

Reliant on Pryce and Hopkins, it’s no wonder The Two Popes is in safe hands. Profound character studies, blending histories, McCarten draws parallels with Bergoglio’s history with the atrocities surrounding Pope Benedict’s time as ‘Il Papa’. A scandal to shudder the church, the concealment of child abuse sharply turned the public eye towards the secrets of organised religion. Acknowledging Pope Benedict’s involvement in the cover-ups, this is not the focus of the narrative, but instead focusing on Bergoglio’s lesser-known past, and the ‘betrayal’ he feels to have committed in South America, which feels like a side-step from controversy. 

Their flashbacks mark a tonal shift for the film, which for the most part has conducted a slower pace, reflective of the men it marks. The cardinal who once whistled ‘Dancing Queen in the Vatican bathrooms, who sought the piety of life, was of course, once a man. Juan Minujín’s performance offsets Pryce’s jolly, humble exterior for an aggressive, younger Priest who had a part to play in the ‘Dirty War’ of Argentina. 

Concealing itself behind the visage of stuffiness, try not to judge The Two Popes on subject matter alone. For while it focuses on two men standing as the pinnacle or relics of religious spiritualism, the meat of the film centres on adversaries who find harmony within one another. A striking visual splendour, humour rippling itself in the vein of the script, Pryce and Hopkins carry McCarten’s delicately humane adaptation, with meticulous direction to present a true event. It encases a playful stretch of accounts of how these two men, a progressive moderate and a conservative leader, would find a common ground, and a love for tango dancing.

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/the-two-popes/

The Two Pope’s is available to stream on Netflix from December 20th