One of the most controversial films ever made.
Father Amaro is sent to a small town in rural Mexico with a dual purpose. He is there to help an aging priest with his parish, but he is also under the guidance of the Bishop to uncover and report on the massive corruption in the area. Upon arriving, he sees he has his work cut out for him. Father Benito, his supposed mentor, takes money from drug lords that he launders to help build a hospital in the town. He also has a local woman for personal (as well as sexual) favors. The other priests in the area are just as bad. Father Natalio provides aid and comfort to rebel forces fighting a guerilla war with the government. Another priest hides his flamboyantly gay personality traits. As Amaro tries to help the Bishop with reforms and the parishioners with their spiritual needs, a young girl named Amelia strikes his fancy. She is sexually obsessed with the church, so much so that she confesses to unclean thoughts about Jesus himself. Amaro falls for her and they begin a passionate affair. Eventually, Amelia gets pregnant. It is only then that she learns the true nature of her loutish lover. Amaro is a power hungry heretic, ready to denounce others for what he readily does. It's not breaking the vow of celibacy or aiding the resistance that makes this young minister a hypocrite. Pride and power are all that are needed to aid and abet The Crime of Padre Amaro.
Perhaps it's time to call a moratorium on Catholic priest bashing. Not that this critic rises to the defense of slimy pedophiles in religious vestments taking advantage of unwitting youths or the untold cover-ups and payoffs involved to keep the reputations of parishes and their participants pure. But it seems like a system as inherently flawed and mired in self-denial as this one is no longer a noble target. When the real life-altering and destroying abuse of children becomes the fodder of untold stand-up routines and plotlines for animated cartoon fare it's time to corral in the comic contempt before it weakens the real evil that truly needs to be fettered out and smashed. But it's not just the humorous heckling that has to stop. Indeed, someone needs to tell director Carlos Carrera that no matter how pertinent a novel from 1875 is to current dishonesty in his native Mexico, such soap opera-ish postulating only fuels a universal overdose ennui, especially when it is in the form of the heavy handed film The Crime of Padre Amaro. What we have here is a movie with no moral center, where every character is corrupt on many intricate levels. There are the old fashioned priests, set in their drug money laundering and sanctuary for guerilla warrior ways, blind to their sins but more than happy to condemn the faults of others. There are the local members of the parish, old ladies who steal money from the collection tray and young girls who turn a sexual eye on the icons like hopped up groupies for God. But the worst may be the title character himself. Padre Amaro, the young saving grace reformer, is in actuality a power mad vacuum, able to use a nubile young woman to satisfy his carnal desires as he finks on those within his order who would do the same. His crime is not the bedding of virgins or the concealing of deceit. He is guilty of committing various immoral acts as a means of achieving power and importance.
And then, we as an audience, are supposed to root for and sympathize with these redolent religious figures. We are supposed to support young Amaro as he seduces and uses the fundamentalist ingénue Amelia to combat his lustful urges. We are to forgive him for the various acts of fornication since he is a forward thinking young man who can somehow divorce himself from the traditionalistic view of priest celibacy while maintaining a pure connection to his church and its teachings. The excommunication of Father Natalio is meant to outrage us, since he is trying to accomplish his primary mandate as a man of the cloth: preserve and comfort his people. So what if many of them are violent anti-government rebels? Don't they deserve a voice in God's kingdom? Even the wide-eyed wanton passion of Amelia is shown as founded in love (albeit a rather outrageous one) of the Lord, not the sins of the flesh. All of this still begs the question: who are we supposed to care about? For the first half of the film, we champion Amaro in his quest for reform until he gropes the girl in one of the pews. Then all bets are off. The movie cheats us into caring about this idealistic young man, but after he pays for an abortion that ends up killing Amelia and fights with his mentor Father Benito until he has a heart attack, we are left disoriented and angry, basically because we fail to see the point of it all. If the message is that corruption comes in all sizes, then that communication is made loud, clear, and consistently in The Crime of Padre Amaro. However, if we are supposed to see a human side to the priesthood, to understand how this ultimate act of altruism results in poor judgment and misdeed, well, it just doesn't happen. No matter how it paints it, the crimes in The Crime of Padre Amaro ring with a feeling of being excessive in the name of redress.
One cannot deny that this is a well-acted and directed film. Each performer finds the right note between power, passion, and perversion to make their character's actions seem believable, natural and organic. Never once do we feel the false notes of forced or feigned emotion. Director Carrera has a nice visual style that mixes medium shots with carefully constructed compositions to emphasize the inner and outer façade of the church. The scenes near the end when Father Natalio is "purged" from the church in front of his community have a beautiful sadness to them. Even the sex scenes between Latin hunk Gael Garcia Bernal (he of Y Tu Mama Tambien fame) and Ana Claudia Talancon are tasteful and warm. But Carrera can also overindulge in symbolism. He takes an already heavy-handed movie and adds a set of wrist weights to the visual narrative to pound you over the head with "Catholicism sucks" statements. The use of a retarded young woman who convulses and spits up in the room next to where Amaro and Amelia "meet" is none too subtle in its significance. Nor are the scenes showing that, during many of the phone calls Amaro shares with the Bishop, his Holiness is indulging in opulence and luxuries (one call even takes place in an immaculate bathroom where the High Priest is soaking his bloated hide). But perhaps the most frequently used emblem of corruption and redemption in The Crime of Padre Amaro is the Host wafer, that thin cracker that represents the body of Christ in the sacrament of Communion. It is omnipresent, as everything from a snack for street kids to a sensual, suggestive offering for Amelia. Aside from the blasphemous note it strikes, it's also a shameful conceit. No one would normally think of using a ritualistic item of religion in such a familiar fashion. But this is the problem with The Crime of Padre Amaro. It wants to shock and criticize, but it can only find a sledgehammer to aid in its point making.
The DVD release of The Crime of Padre Amaro is substantial and irritating. On the good side, we have the sound and vision vitals that show off digital technology at its best. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is stunning, representing a near perfect transfer in both color and clarity. Equally dynamic is the Dolby Digital 5.1 in either Spanish or English. This is a rare case when the English dub is not a complete disaster and actually adds another dimension to the film, momentarily taking the movie out of its foreign roots and into a more global realm. As for ambience and atmosphere, the aural presentation does give us a few moments of channel-to-channel cheer. But this is mostly a dialogue heavy film, so there is no great home theater experience waiting to be had here. As for bonus content, the features on this disc are a mixed bag. There is a commentary track featuring director Carrera and star Gael Garcia Bernal. The good news is that it is informative and entertaining. The bad news is that it is in Spanish, meaning non-natives have to read the insights and anecdotes while the movie plays along. Still, Carrera and Bermal offering some interesting tidbits about the film: they argue over Padre Amaro's true guilt, offer examples of "Jiminy Cricket" moments scattered throughout the plot, and hint at subtle references regarding the paternity and perversity of the characters. Occasionally there is too much glad-handing and backslapping, but overall it's a compelling complement to the film. As for the rest of the extras, they are rather trivial. The Behind the Scenes featurette is five minutes of meaningless fluff as are the poster and photo galleries. Along with a set of trailers, we have a disc that seems loaded with material until we take a closer look—just like the film itself.
The Crime of Padre Amaro is a troubling statement about Church hypocrisy and fraud that doesn't know when to quit. Its main flaw lies in using an overripe work of fiction from 120 years ago to construct its modern point, but in this case, a more grounded real world revision is in order. The felony of this film is to try and speak for entire generations of wronged worshipers with such an overbroad sword. Instead of a pinpoint deconstruction this is just another example of the current dogma pile on mentality used when it comes to religion.
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• Commentary by Director Carlos Carrera and Actor Gael Garcia Bernal (in Spanish with subtitles)
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