El Crimen del padre Amaro

(2002) *** R
118 min. Samuel Goldwyn. Director: Carlos Carrera. Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Ana Claudia Talancon, Damian Alcazar, Sancho Gracia, Angelica Aragon.

El Crimen del Padre Amaro—that is, The Crime of Father Amaro—fairly defines cinematic provocation with its tale of corrupt and sexually active priests. In its native Mexico, the film broke records—it's the reigning domestic box-office champ of all time—while stirring up copious controversy; in America, the film hit on the heels of a national crisis of faith involving clerical statutory rape. Some say the film offers nothing but tawdry, cheap thrills. Others laud its disturbing but accurate humanism and frank criticism of counterproductive tradition. Both camps are right: the film works as campy Buñuelian satire and surprisingly affecting emotional tone poem.

Mexico's official Academy Awards entry, El Crimen del Padre Amaro springs from José María Eça de Queiróz's 1875 Portuguese novel, and surely director Carlos Carrera must savor the irony that a story more than 125 years old (as punched up by veteran screenwriter Vicente Leñero) has caused such a furor. On one hand, the tale is every bit as lurid and off-putting as it may seem, but on the other, it wields undeniable allegorical power in questioning the socio-political status quo.

The story establishes the titular, titillating priest (sensitively etched by Gael García Bernal of Y tu mamá también fame) as a fresh-faced "innocent" looking forward to a comfortable, upwardly mobile, white-collar career with the bonus of helping, if not serving, others along the way. Leñero carefully solicits a few dollops of audience sympathy for Amaro (enough for Bernal's charm to run away with), then insistently pushes Amaro against that grain by allowing him to make corrupt choices at every successive critical juncture. In perhaps the most offensive gesture—as it is perhaps the most selfish—Amaro succumbs to the charms of sixteen-year-old parishioner Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancón).

Carrera's jarringly self-conscious cutaways from the copulating couple to church icons like a weeping porcelain Christ seem at first to demand aesthetically sensitive noses to turn up, but a moment later, I found myself aware of Carrera positioning our superior huffery and self-righteous hang-ups in the mirror, just as Amaro's indignation at the transgressions of his fellow priests melts in the heat of his own far-more egregious "crimes" (read "sins"). Carrera and Leñero seem to fairly snigger, is it our fault if you're turned on by our sex scenes? Is it the fault of our priests that society expects them to be more inhumanly perfect than Jesus himself? Hypocrisy, it seems, is the greatest sin of all.

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