Written by Sai Sagar
Nominated for the Academy Awards’ Best International Feature Film, this Polish drama opens with an “Inspired by real-life events” tag, instantly drawing us towards it. Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) is in a detention center for a second-degree crime. We are introduced to the horrors of the place moments after his fellow detainees strip and beat a weakling, and Daniel helps these men. In a contrasting follow-up scene, he is seen arranging chairs for the prayer sermon followed by singing the hymns of the Lord like a good Christian. We get to know that he will soon get out on parole. He wants to join a seminary but sadly, he can’t because of his criminal history.
From the confined spaces, we move to the countryside. Daniel enjoying the beautiful view, half-heartedly walks towards the sawmill. He quickly runs back towards the scenery and enjoys a smoke; the church bells ring as if it’s some divine signal for him to come there. He walks to the place observing the calm and serene parish. Inside the church, he is mistaken for a priest and by the time he tries to escape, it is too late. The current priest is out of the parish and appoints him as the priest until he comes back. How will Daniel, a fun-loving youth, conduct prayers, sermons, and funerals? Will he be able to live as a priest or get himself back into the detention center again forms the crux of the following part.
At the basic level, this is just a drama of mistaken identities, but what makes this story emotionally engaging is the drama in the subplot about an accident/murder of seven people. Daniel is an obvious complex character who, on the surface, is just a guy who likes to party like there is no tomorrow but can’t as he has a morning mass. He is a criminal and yet someone who repents what he did and wants to join the path of the Lord. But he proves to be a great priest as more people start attending the mass. He brings the spirit of brotherhood out of the parishioners and organizes community events. He tries to reform the angry mob of parishioners through simple humanized messages from the Bible and not lengthy sermons. Even though he cheats the parish and impersonates the priest, his intentions are noble.
The simplicity of storytelling and the noble lesson without hyperbole is what makes this film great. Bartosz Bielenia as Daniel effortlessly makes you feel for him and root for him throughout. His engaging performance during the sermons makes one feel he is having an intimate conversation with you. This character carries almost a Christ-like vibe whenever he is giving a sermon. He does his duties even though he knows that he is almost on the verge of getting caught.
This film can be called a character study as the entire social commentary is delivered through Daniel’s character. But when the time comes for him to leave the parish, he almost meets a Christ-like fate. The people he transformed don’t even get to thank him. The priest visibly sees the love of these parishioners for him, but his hands are tied. Daniel helplessly walks away and goes back to the sawmill.
The ending is shock, gut wrenching and heavy-hearted for the viewer. You want to know what happened to Daniel, save him or probably thank him, but he is beyond anyone’s reach. This makes us value the people like him we have in our lives. I have neither interest nor intention to predict the Oscars, but this is a great feel-good film that engages us with its storytelling in a heart-touching way.