El Crimen Del Padre Amaro

| December 9, 2002

Of late, the Christian Broadcasting Network has taken up much of my TV-watching hours. Their nightly news is something that I look forward to with great anticipation during the rest of my dreary day. While those earnest people over at CNN are busy getting the pronunciation of Qatar right, the folks of CBN throw caution to wind in bringing us the latest outrages in the Muslim/Jewish/Hindu world–the priority seems to be in that order–where the absence of the Gospel has driven the devil into the hearts and minds of the poor natives. The new Mexican film, El Crimen del Padre Amaro is the ham-handed answer to these evangelizing shows. Just as CBN ferrets out the age-old dirt beneath each non-Christian culture’s carpets and throws it in your face like a cream pie, El Crimen drags out the everyday sins of Catholic priests and presents them to us with all the subtlety and smoothness of Monty Python’s “And now for something completely different…” segues. Despite the promising subject matter–sinful priests and the spectre of Communism–and the perfect timing in terms of current events, El Crimen fails to say anything interesting, and doesn’t even tell a straightforward story very well.
But first things first: El Crimen does actually have a story, even though it turns out to be an excuse for listing the crimes of the fathers. Padre Amaro, a bright young priest, arrives in Los Reyes to help out the local priest, Padre Benito. The extracurricular activities of the priests–Benito’s sleeping with the innkeeper, and accepting money from a drug lord for building a hospital–are soon revealed to the young ingénue. This introductory part of the film is actually the best. Gael Garcia Bernal doesn’t miss a note as the ambitious yet naive Amaro. He takes in everything around him, but isn’t quite sure which sieve to filter things through. In fact, the best thing about the film is probably Bernal’s take on Amaro; he does not play him as an idealistic newcomer who wants to right things. Amaro is young, and the issues that confront him are new to him. He is also used to bowing to the authority of the church elders, so it doesn’t occur to him to disapprove, or to reprimand. The director, Carlos Carrera, pitches in by trying to communicate the casual way in which religion insinuates itself into the daily lives of the people, something that is fascinating to those from a less religious culture.
Soon enough, a beautiful young local named Amelia tempts Amaro to join Benito in flouting the vow of celibacy. Amelia’s devotion to God and the church slides easily into a fondness for the young priest, and Amaro is all too ready to spout poetry and blaspheme in the arms of this virginal parishioner. At this point, the entire movie unravels into a list of no-nos of the Catholic Church. There goes celibacy, next up blasphemy, rounded out by a botched abortion. We get a fleeting glimpse of a priest who might be protecting Communist guerillas, but Carrera doesn’t even take a few steps down that very promising path. Ruben, a young journalist from Los Reyes, blows the cover on Benito’s underworld dealings and ostracized for it, but this storyline is also killed before we get a chance to savor it. Bernal’s acting descends into the depths of melodrama, and the movie never recovers. There is an excommunication, a stroke, a death, but there is no analysis, no reflection on either the actions of the people involved, or their consequences. The ending has a flavor of a moral, thought it could go either way. El Crimen is based on a 19th century story, so it is possible that there was indeed a clearly spelled out moral, but Carrera doesn’t go the straightforward route and display the moral in all its glory, but neither does he re-interpret the ending in the 21st century setting. We come away with a feeling that Carrera didn’t have enough time to think through the ending and just piled on the sequences one after another.
To be fair, there are several elements that redeem El Crimen to some extent. Since we’re doing lists, let’s just list the good things about the movie. First, of course, is Bernal’s acting. People north of the border will recognize him from Amores Perros, and more recently, from Y Tu Mama Tambien. The discovery of an acting talent like this augurs well for Mexican cinema: a good actor can lift a mediocre film to great heights. Andres Montiel as Ruben and Damian Alcazar as Padre Natalio, the guerrilla-sympathizer also put in creditable performances, but they get little exposure. Second, Guillermo Granillo’s vivid cinematography adds an element of depth, without which El Crimen would have collapsed completely. The causal shots of the streets of Los Reyes, with the donkeys carrying their burdens, the lingering shots inside the church which bring the colorful deities alive, and the careful study of Bernal’s face as he reacts to the various crises which present themselves to him, all make up for much of the gaps left by the way the story is handled. Sometimes, the framing or the composition of a scene seems to be a tourist shot, eye-candy for the American audience, but for the most part, Granillo preserves the authenticity of the atmosphere. Finally, as a famous person once said, naughty schoolgirls will always draw in the crowds. Ana Claudia Talancon, who plays the devout Amelia, has a rich olive complexion and expressive deep brown eyes that hypnotize the audience along with the young priest. Her short, short skirts and the provocatively modest cardigan draped on her shoulders are only a cultural heartbeat away from “Baby One More Time.” No matter that Amelia never really comes alive as a person, and you never really understand why the pious Catholic is seducing the priest–for that is exactly what she does, with her wide-open eyes brimming with tears–or what she wants. I am always in favor of beautiful people being cast in more or less important roles; that way, if the movie tanks, at least you can admire the cuties.
And now for a final word, back to the CBN: how would they respond to El Crimen? Maybe like a posting I saw on an online discussion forum, which just said “El Crimen is a hate crime against Catholics.” Or maybe, the evangelists on CBN hate Catholics too, in which case they might say, ” this is what comes of idol worship.” The point is that El Crimen is so shallow and so simplistic a treatment of an age-old and extremely complex issue, that it cannot prompt any serious discussion. Provoking an uprorar of some sort seems to be the only purpose of the film, but dangling a few errant priests and an innocent virgin in front of our eyes only makes us crack a few jokes and move onto the next topic of New Yorker cartoons. El Crimen Del Padre Amaro has done extremely well at the box office in Mexico and is expected to succeed stateside as well, but it is a pity that Carrera could not use his position within the Catholic culture and the forum presented by the turn of current events to say something more meaningful.

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