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CRIME OF PADRE AMARO, THE (El Crimen del Padre Amaro)(director: Carlos Carrera; screenwriters: Vicente Leñero/from the the novel by Eça de Queirós; cinematographer: Guillermo Granillo; editor: Oscar Figueroa; music: Rosino Serrano; cast: Gael García Bernal (Padre Amaro), Ana Claudia Talancón (Amelia), Sancho Gracia (Padre Benito), Damián Alcázar (Padre Natalio), Angélica Aragón (Sanjuanera), Ernesto Gomez Cruz (Bishop), Pedro Armendáriz Jr. (The Mayor), Gaston Melo (Martín, Sexton), Verónica Langer (Amparita, the Mayor’s Wife), Lorenzo de Rodas (Don Paco), Luisa Huertas (Dionisia), Andrés Montiel (Rubén de la Rosa); Runtime: 119; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Alfredo Ripstein/Daniel Birman Ripstein; Samuel Goldwyn Films/Columbia Tristar; 2002-Mexico, in Spanish with English subtitles)
“The drama was so uninspiring that even a story immersed in love, lust, and sin couldn’t keep my attention.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Carlos Carrera’s controversial melodrama about the corruption within the Mexican church is based on the 1875 novel by the Portuguese author Eça de Queirós. It’s updated by screenwriter Vicente Leñero to modern times, as its highlight topic of priests breaking their vow of chastity certainly made the recent newspaper headlines. Carrera, unfortunately, crudely splashes across the screen a sordid love affair between a 24-year-old handsome priest, Padre Amaro, and one of his parishioners, a virgin 16-year-old girl, Amelia. Amaro was assigned after his priestly ordination to this small town church in Los Reyes and quickly succumbs to temptation by embarking on this tabu affair with the pious girl who is completely trusting of the church. You can also add to what else will make the church authorities angry as hell about the film: an abortion; a drug lord laundering money scheme with the local priest; and, mountain village guerrilla fighters in collaboration with a rebel priest, Father Natalio, who is die-hard follower of the liberation theology movement. What angered me was the filmmaker’s insensitivity over a murder scene. A photographer hired by the drug lord to take pictures of him and Padre Benito at a family baptism is brutally stabbed to death by a guerrilla when he refuses to hand over those photos. It’s an awkwardly shot scene that conveys no feeling for the vic.

Carrera brings up a laundry list of items that are embarrassing to the church which inevitably also happen in real-life, but aside from throwing it out to the viewer as shock the filmmaker has little to say about some of the vital Catholic dogma issues within the church it raises such as celibacy for the priests. Everything presented against the imperfections of the church and how hypocritical they are, lacks any degree of subtlety and drama. It was torturous watching this heavy-handed sudser. There was perhaps one good line in the film, as the restaurant owner lady reminds her lover priest that he once said “The only hell is loneliness.” I would like to add, hell is also watching this film.

This is a commercial film that got big box office in Mexico, probably resulting from the church putting up a big stink about the film’s unswerving anticlerical stance. To its credit the filmmaker got the church hopping mad, as it threatened the two leads with excommunication. But no one should mistake this crass director for Buñuel, who in Nazarín covered the same anticlerical themes but managed to float ideas that humanized the priests and raised true questions about the church’s lack of responsiveness to the people. This film only thinks it humanizes the priests by exposing their flaws. It instead degrades both the priests and the church, and brings everyone down as either an idiotic believer in the faith or a politically motivated manipulator who uses the church only for selfish reasons.

The film opens with Amaro in civvies riding a bus to his first mission. Amaro gets ambushed by a gun-toting gang, who rob everyone. The seemingly good-natured priest gives the peasant sitting next to him, who lost his life’s stash he was going to use to open a shop, some money he hid from the bandits. Amaro’s assigned by the corpulent bishop to assist old-timer Padre Benito for some local church experience before getting his promised bigger assignment in the Roman see where the church powers hang their miters, as the wily bishop makes it known to everyone that he favors Amaro. Amaro wants to be a good priest and dedicate himself to God, and serve his people. But things change when he gets his values mixed up with temptation and ambition, and we never see him helping another soul after he gets off the bus and takes up his church duties. His angelic qualities are shed for his snake-like ones when he sees corruption all around him, as he’s a quick learner in how to never lose favor with his benefactor. He soon discovers that Benito is sleeping with the local restaurant woman, Sanjuanera, whose pretty daughter is Amelia. Also, he learns that Benito’s taking money from the local drug lord Don Chato because he wants to build in town a first-class hospital from his donations and because he’s a greedy pig who likes stuffing his fat face. Everyone we meet, even the obscure figures, have some kind of defect or burden to carry. The sexton lives in poverty with his retarded daughter. Dionisia is a batty parishioner thieving from the collection plate and feeding undigested communion wafers to her ailing cat.

Amelia is being pursued by Rubén de la Rosa, but she takes one look at the new priest and bats her eyes before going into a swoon. You know exactly down which dirt road this one is going from here on. Amaro is played by the Mexican heartthrob Gael García Bernal, who was recently in the far superior “Y Tu Mamá También” and “Amores Perros.” He’s too weak to turn away from the temptation of snatching the pretty treat, who lets him know she’s there for the taking. Amelia soon dumps her punky boyfriend Rubén, who goes to another town to lick his wounds and become a muckraking newspaper reporter telling about the connection between the drug lord and Padre Benito. Amaro is too ambitious to call out his diocese for its corruption and risk losing his promised position, as the bishop uses him to write a false rebutal article in the newspaper and the church further uses its influence to get Rubén axed.

The controversial scenes to follow include: the long kiss between Amaro and Amelia in the church; the couple lying nude together and fornicating in the sexton’s spare room, which they obtained on false pretenses; in the most wicked scene, Amaro dresses Amelia up in a robe to look like the Virgin Mary before letting go of his sexual repressions to fully embrace her. Amelia gets pregnant and the priest refuses to honor her request to leave his vocation and marry her, instead he arranges for an abortion.

The film raises the issues of today that confront a troubled Catholic Church, but the drama was so uninspiring that even a story immersed in love, lust, and sin couldn’t keep my attention.

REVIEWED ON 6/27/2003 GRADE: C –

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”