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This 'Padre' is flesh and blood

November 15, 2002|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

The words on the American poster for the Mexican film "El Crimen del Padre Amaro (The Crime of Father Amaro)" say it all: "Love. Lust. Sin." Of the many kinds of movie love, forbidden love gives off the greatest charge, and what could be more forbidden than the love of a handsome young Catholic priest for a 16-year-old parishioner? You can almost feel the College of Cardinals reaching for its collective smelling salts.

In Mexico, where the Catholic church has so much influence that Martin Scorsese's "Last Temptation of Christ" was never released, "El Crimen" caused such a sensation that both of its stars were threatened with excommunication. Despite, or perhaps because of, the scandal, the film prospered, becoming the country's highest-grossing domestic film ever. Quite an accomplishment for something based on a Portuguese novel published in 1875.

True to its source, "El Crimen" is at its core an unapologetic anticlerical melodrama dating from the days when the church truly wielded power. The remarkable things about the new film, adapted by Vicente Lenero and directed by Carlos Carrera, are how smoothly it has been transposed to today's Mexico and how far good acting and skillful directing have gone toward tempering those melodramatic roots.

The updating was probably the easiest part of that equation. The predatory sexual nature of some priests and the resultant ecclesiastical cover-up have been one of the major international news stories of the past year. As to the other issues raised -- the church's acceptance of money from drug lords, and priests collaborating with guerrilla forces -- director Carrera told The Times, "All of this behavior seen in the film has happened in reality. None of this is a lie or a part of our imagination."

So while "El Crimen's" plotting never lets us forget it's a melodrama, the fact that the issues are real adds to our interest. Similarly, Carrera's low-key style and the strong performances of his cast make this a melodrama that rarely pushes its luck, that knows enough to avoid overdoing things whenever possible

The film's best performance, by "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and "Amores Perros" star Gael Garcia Bernal, is in the title role. He makes Padre Amaro into a more convincingly complex character than we might expect, a sympathetic young man who wants to do good but finds, almost to his own surprise, that he is too weak and too ambitious to resist the snares of the world.

A favorite of the local bishop, the 24-year-old, newly ordained Padre Amaro has been sent to the small town of Los Reyes to get some seasoning. What he, and we, gradually discover is a place mired in all manner of corruption, down to crazed parishioner Dionisia (Luisa Huertas) stealing from the collection plate and feeding communion wafers to her sick cat.

"The devil came to this town years ago," someone says. "He built his lair here."

The town's veteran priest, Padre Benito (Sancho Gracia), has taken local cafe owner Sanjuanera (Angelica Aragon) as his mistress and happily accepts money from drug kingpin Chato Aguilar to fund a hospital he wants to build, reasoning, "Should we be choosy where money for good comes from?"

The only idealist within earshot is Padre Natalio (Damian Alcazar), a follower of the liberation theology movement who works with local peasants in the mountains and shrugs off complaints that he is too close to rebel forces.

The true innocent in town is the beautiful young Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancon), Sanjuanera's devout daughter. Confusing the sacred and the carnal, she falls hard for the handsome padre, inappropriately reaching for his hand and telling him in confession that she is an extremely sensual person. As my mother used to say, no good will come of this. We may root for love conquering all, but in the context of "El Crimen," that turns out to be a naive hope.

Though it is hardly an advertisement for organized religion, "El Crimen" is surprisingly adept at conveying the sense of power and mystery the church has at its command, at showing the intensity of belief that ritual and mysticism can inspire.

The film is also determined to treat its characters, weak and strong, as fallible human beings, not caricatures, and to carefully delineate the cost of the inevitable conflicts between human urges and an institution concerned with self-preservation. "The only hell is loneliness," Sanjuanera reminds Padre Benito.

Replies the chastened priest, "I hope God sees it that way."


`El Crimen del Padre Amaro'

MPAA rating: R for sexuality, language and some disturbing images.

Times guidelines: Scenes of sensuality in a religious context.

Gael Garcia Bernal ... Padre Amaro

Ana Claudia Talancon ... Amelia

Sancho Gracia ... Padre Benito

Damian Alcazar ... Padre Natalio

Angelica Aragon ... Sanjuanera

Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films. Director Carlos Carrera. Producers Alfredo Ripstein, Daniel Birman Ripstein. Executive producer Laura Imperiale. Screenplay Vicente Lenero. Cinematographer Guillermo Granillo. Editor Oscar Figueroa. Costumes Mariestela Fernandez. Music Rosino Serrano. Art director Carmen Gimenez Cacho. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.

In limited release.

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