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Film review: The Pilgrim’s Progress, and Corpus Christi

25 October 2019

Stephen Brown views The Pilgrim’s Progress and Corpus Christi

Christian meets Worldly Wiseman in The Pilgrim’s Progress

Christian meets Worldly Wiseman in The Pilgrim’s Progress

NOT for the first time, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (Cert. PG) has become a movie. Versions going all the way back to 1912 precede it. Each, no doubt, has tried to remain faithful in its fashion to the original text, without just being visual replication.

It is hard not to think that the form of this animated interpretation owes something to the Lord of the Rings film franchise. That’s not to say that Tolkien was entirely original, drawing as he did on the likes of Bunyan, Nordic sagas, and tales of antiquity with their quests, guiding spirits, soul-friends, and battle scenes. Probably the difference with this new piece, though allegorical, is that it’s upfront in advertising rather than inferring its bona fides. After all, the lead character is called Christian. Even so, the option remains to view it as a dystopian fable along the lines of The Handmaid’s Tale or 1984.

Christian is an inhabitant of the City of Destruction, which keeps its residents under close surveillance, prohibiting access to anything that could give them ideas that sublimer possibilities do exist. The disappearance of one citizen, Faithful Pathfinder, sets up panic in the regime, presided over by Beelzebub. Christian happens upon a journal that Faithful has abandoned, inspiring him to take the same route to the Celestial City against the wishes of his wife and children.

Several scenes follow the same kind of journeying as found along The Wizard of Oz’s yellow brick road, including winged avengers, deceivers, and supernatural characters bent on thwarting the pilgrim’s progress. Alternatively, we can name-check specific occurrences in the new film against their biblical counterparts. Faithful and Christian are condemned at Vanity Fair and abused by its people in a way vividly recalling the Via Dolorosa. Psalm 23’s Valley of the Shadow of Death has a clear parallel in the film.

By stating that Robert Fernandez’s debut feature follows a predictable narrative arc, even for those unaware of the Bunyan allegory, doesn’t diminish its achievements. We may have become accustomed to the highly sophisticated techniques of Japanese anime or the Pixar Studio, but The Pilgrim’s Progress holds its own. The dripping 2D lurid red ink-drawings that begin the feature have already told us what we need to know about the nature of the City of Destruction. Words simply fill out the description. And, while the transition to CGI may, by some standards, reveal limitations in the characters’ range of facial expressions, we are left in no doubt about who are God-botherers and who are not.

If anything, one could quarrel with the timbre of voices employed by the actors playing villains: they are so obvious that even the silky tones of The Flatterer are such a giveaway they defy belief that Faithful and Christian could be hoodwinked by them. You may also have qualms about how satisfactory the ending is. Are we left believing that only those who escape the clutches of the oppressively evil city have any hope of salvation? Or is it through Christian endeavour that transfiguration can occur, even in the darkest places? We can only hope for the latter.


“EACH of us is a priest of Christ.” So says Fr Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat) in Corpus Christi (Cert. 15). He’s a well-respected enough chaplain of a youth detention centre for one of the inmates, Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia), to seek ordination. No chance, given his criminal record. Paroled, he is sent to a sawmill in deepest Poland. Anxious to avoid fellow ex-cons there, he visits the town near by, donning a clerical shirt that has stolen.

Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) in Corpus Christi

The ailing parish priest (Zdislaw Wardejn) welcomes Daniel (now calling himself Father Tomasz), asking him to undertake his sacerdotal tasks. Initially nervous, Daniel resorts to parroting the chaplain’s sermons. Not least he endears himself to worshippers through his angelic voice. But this is no Polish Sister Act with all the laughter that Whoopi Goldberg’s “nun” on the run engenders. Daniel’s ministry is to a congregation overwhelmed by the death of six teenagers in a car collision with a driver whose ostracised widow has been refused burial. The challenge is to effect healing.

The film is “inspired by true events”. There was a case in Poland of a youth impersonating a priest. The film changes his name and adds the prisoner back story and road accident. Unauthorised though he is, Daniel acts very effectively as a priest of Christ. Like many newly ordained, he says things that subsequently may be recalled only while blushing. He just speaks from the heart. Many such moments are straight to camera, as if he is addressing us.

This troubled, brutalised boy proclaims a realised eschatology: the Kingdom of heaven is here on earth. He needs to believe in redemption, having done something terrible without grasping its consequences. Faith becomes a frantic second chance. When addressing mourning relatives, he is also speaking to himself. “Don’t pretend that you are not angry that something wasn’t taken away from you. Don’t pretend that you understand it.” The psalmist couldn’t put it more succinctly.

The viewer is left pondering how deep Daniel’s beliefs are. Is faked ordination merely escape from the waking nightmare that his life has thus far been? Ignoring the Second Vatican Council’s affirmation of the priesthood of all believers, the director Jan Komasa claims the film as Protestant, reinforcing the notion of everyone is their own theologian. Perhaps it would be more accurate for Komasa to say that it just doesn’t feel like that in a country dominated by traditionalist Roman Catholicism.

In any event, this is not a piece of cinematic pamphleteering. What is true faith and what is simply loneliness finding refuge in respectability is a theme running through Corpus Christi. Philosopher A. N. Whitehead’s observation that religion is what people do with their solitariness seems applicable when a congregation is more wedded to rituals than to being the embodiment of Christ.

Corpus Christi may be overlong and conclude on a unsatisfactory note, but it ranks as an important examination of the human soul. The best line is left to the parish priest on his return. Our wrongdoing is a parable of how far we have walked away from God, he says. But even then God speaks to us. We may be left wondering, though, whether Daniel is still listening.

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