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/

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

The Exorcist – King’s Theatre

Based on the book by William Peter Blatty

Adapted by John Pielmeier

Directed by Sean Mathias

When all medical help fails your child – when it seems as though the Reaper is closing in around her, or perhaps, a darker entity, you would turn to anyone to save them. After daughter Reagan begins to show signs of possession, actress Chris turns to the church to save her. Bill Kenwright’s Westend production takes William Peter Blatty’s supernatural text, The Exorcist, and creates a technically heavy show, which blunders into biblical failures of the unholiest intention.

Sean Mathias’ grave mistake with the production boils down to issues with pacing, The Exorcist is a tremendously slow-building text which requires build-up for the supernatural presence to take effect. The entire story survives on taking its time, allowing the menace to pervade. This is especially relevant now, given fewer devote followers who find the concept alone enough to heighten the fright factor. Susannah Edgley seems to perform Regan on fast-forward, delivering a remarkably peculiar character, devoid of childlike innocence. Mathias’ direction seems to concern itself with diving into the superficial – the gore, the swearing, the horror, but this means the sudden switch and speedy deliveries feel akin to an amateur performance, far from what this cast is capable of.

Committing wholly, soaking in every ounce of the show is Paul Nicholas, to no one’s surprise. Father Merrin’s part in the story is limited like his cinematic counterpart, but the gravity he conveys accidentally serves to showcase how little control Ben Caplan manages to get across as Father Karras. He holds limited presence, particularly when placing him alongside the likes of Tristram Wymark’s Uncle Burk, a luvvie film director. An error is that in the scripts intimately difficult scenes, such as Regan’s brief masturbation with a crucifix, the cast members involved seem too determined for the scene to be over. They draw attention to how tonally awkward the script can be when they should be embracing such a volatile piece of writing which has such depth if crude merit to its theme.

Where praise lies and an apology from others should follow, is with the technical team and stage management. With various iconic scenes to re-create, Anna Fleischle’s set is dripping with suburban American mood, with the distinct menace eerily floating through the environment. There’s depth to the design, which enables the house to gain a sense of scale, of space. While we may lose the infamous shot of Father Marren lit only by the streetlight, the harrowing echoes of Tubular Bells in the background, we do get a glimmer of recreation, but it is a shame to have lost the scene, especially as it is on the programmes cover.

Construction has been carried out with Ben Hart’s illusions in mind, seamlessly blending multiple fantasies into the background, with only a few tricks of the trade revealing themselves. For the most part, the witchery of The Exorcist is kept under wraps, on occasion to tremendous effect. As the finale draws near, Regan rises into the air to confront her redeemers, there’s a genuine air of malevolence. The infamous head turn, if carried out successfully, is relatively simple, but practical and effective, these are the effects which make the show worth viewing. 

In the world of theatre, it’s all smoke and mirrors – or at least, acts of light and sound. Philip Gladwell’s lighting design frames the production in a persistent ominous glow, from the house’s amber-tint to the cheap, though effective shock-value jolts of the strobe, covering movement or stage-setup. It marries with Adam Cork’s sound composition, which is unnerving, with its whispers, chanting and creaks in the darkness. Though, a selling feature for many is the sultry tones of another sound effect.

The Sir himself, Ian McKellen, provides the voice of the demon, suffice to say, unsurprisingly, it’s a weighty performance. It marries oddly well with Edgley’s miming, which does take times to get used to. At first, it feels unnatural, but not in the supernatural sense, removing us from the immersion. Sir McKellen’s voice is a distraction, at first, it’s difficult with such star-power for an audience to remove themselves from hearing the performer rather than the character. He certainly brings a dedication to the role, dripping with over-the-top malice and demonic glee, though his dulcet annunciations feel less diabolical and more condescending.

In truth, an unholy alliance of abysmal pacing, with misjudged direction and weak character portrayals keeps the classic of supernatural horror from achieving what it ought to. It’s a tried and tested story, still inspiring spin-off, images and blatant rip-offs to this day. The Exorcist was a defining classic of cinematic horror. It should easily have made a transition to the stage, and chances are, with superior direction, and a tighter grasp of the narrative, it could rival the likes of The Woman in Black as theatre’s nightmarish secret.

The Exorcist runs at The King’s Theatre until November 9th: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/the-exorcist

Photo Credit – The Other Richard