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Director deflects fire and brimstone

Carlos Carrera's controversial film, which opens in the U.S. today, has drawn the ire of Catholic groups.

November 15, 2002|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

Director Carlos Carrera seems to have lost his appetite. Picking at his grilled chicken, the weary-looking Carrera says he doesn't understand why his movie, "El Crimen del Padre Amaro," which opens today in the U.S., has caused such an uproar. Having riled conservative Catholics in his native Mexico and now in the U.S., the movie has caused him more grief than he imagined possible.

In Mexico, Carrera is being sued by a conservative Catholic group for allegedly "violating the rights of Catholics." He found himself in the eye of the storm when top members of the Mexican clergy tried this summer to have the film banned. A government official asked him to delete some of the more offending scenes -- including a scene in which Father Amaro makes love to a parishioner under the mantel of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Carrera refused.

The onslaught of criticism has flowed to the U.S.

The Catholic League, a conservative activist group, has issued a press release saying that Catholicism is "being assaulted" in the film. The group has spearheaded past protests against the Brooklyn Museum for a controversial art show as well as Kevin Smith's film "Dogma." The group also plans to campaign against Miramax's "The Magdalene Sisters," the Venice International Film Festival prize-winner about an asylum run by Irish nuns, due out next year.

Louis Giovino, director of communications for the league, said he has seen "Padre Amaro" and called it "a shallow and biased screed" but said the organization had no plans to protest beyond its denunciation of the movie in the press release.

Another conservative Catholic group, the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, has orchestrated mailings of thousands of postcards protesting the film as blasphemous. The group planned to demonstrate outside the Galaxy Theater in Hollywood, where a screening was scheduled, Thursday night.

In the past, movies that dealt with controversial religious themes have sparked scattered picketing at theaters and sometimes huge demonstrations, as was the case with "The Last Temptation of Christ" in 1988.

In the U.S., the film will be released initially only on 45 screens in five cities, targeting the art house crowd and cities with large Latino populations such as Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles.

Samuel Goldwyn Films has run an extensive campaign on Spanish language radio and television stations.

Resembling an exhausted doctoral student in his loose sweater and glasses, the diminutive Carrera said he remains perplexed by the film's notoriety.

"It was made very respectfully," he said during an interview in Los Angeles. "We never talk about faith or the presence of Christ in communion. None of the fundamental principles of the religion are ever questioned. What is questioned are some of the positions that the church has taken as a political institution."

He said he even agreed, at the urging of government officials, to push back the date of release in Mexico so it would not coincide with the pope's visit to the country in July.

"We agreed because releasing the film at that time would have looked like a provocation," he said.

The film, which became Mexico's highest-grossing domestic film, is based on a 19th century Portuguese novel by Jose Maria Eca de Queiroz but is set in contemporary Mexico. Gael Garcia Bernal ("Amores Perros," "Y Tu Mama Tambien") plays an ambitious young priest who is drawn into an affair with a young parishioner, with tragic results.

The movie also deals with issues confronting many Mexican priests, including accepting large donations from drug dealers and aiding guerrilla activities in more rural and impoverished areas of Mexico. Carrera says it's startling to note that the book's main issues have not changed in more than a century since the novel was published.

"Everything is still relevant, including the hypocrisies of society and the church and the principal story -- the love story between Amaro and Amelia," Carrera said. "We were always looking for the human side of this story. We did not want to make a protest film."

Carrera, 40, is considered one of the top directors of the new Mexican cinema. He began his career as an animator at age 12. In 1991, Carrera's first feature, "La Mujer de Benjamin" (The Wife of Benjamin), won best original screenplay at Mexico's version of the Academy Awards. Another film he made in 1998, "Un Embrujo" (Under a Spell), also earned him critical praise, but none of his films has come close to the box-office success of "Padre Amaro."

"Next time," he joked, "we are going to hire the bishops and the guy from Pro-Vida [the group that filed the lawsuit in Mexico] to promote our films."

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