Mixing sex with the Catholic Church and a Mexican filmmaker guarantees good box office receipts and inevitable condemnation from the Church. Add Mexican superstar Gael Garcia Bernal (of Amores Perros and Y Tu Mama Tambien fame) as the wayward protagonist; he generates even greater box office revenue. Director Carlos Carrera rides this formula in El Crimen del Padre Amaro (The Crime of Father Amaro) to financial success, religious controversy, and surprising critical acclaim from Mexican film publicists that are pushing it for Oscar acclaim over the much better Y Tu Mama Tambien.
Poking at the hypocrisies of the church is nothing new. Bunuel made a career of questioning religion and the Church during the many years he lived in Mexico, but he humorously infused irony so subtlety that it occasionally went undetected by Church officials. In fact, Nazarin was strongly considered for the Prix de l'Office Catholique, despite the fact that Bunuel illustrates the ultimate impotence of the Catholic Church to resolve problems in the film. Expect no such subtlety with Carrera—his melodrama sledgehammers Catholic hypocrisy to death and kicks the body to make sure the audience gets it. But Carrera has no real artistic purpose behind this film; the blatancy of the message and the predictability of the plot point mostly to short term profits.
That is unfortunate, because the film begins with great promise when screenwriter Vicente Lenero (adapting Portuguese author Jose Maria Eca de Queiroz's 1875 book) focuses on Padre Amaro's (Bernal) character. The handsome fourteen-year-old priest routinely handles a Mexican bus raid, demonstrates compassion when an elderly man has had his life savings stolen, and shows devotion to his new parish in the tiny town of Los Reyes. Instantly the village women take note of the new arrival—a middle aged woman is most eager for the young priest to visit her home in private, while sixteen-year old virgin Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancon) loses all interest in her boyfriend as soon as she lays eyes on Padre Amaro. She claims devotion to Christ but fools no one, and the priest resists her advances...at first.
Cracks in the Church's spiritual armor appear early, however. The idealistic young priest soon observes that compromises exist in the real world. Aging Father Benito (Sancho Gracia) secretly beds his housekeeper, Sanjuanera (Angelica Aragon), and Father Natalio (Damian Alcazar) protects guerilla fighters and drug dealers in his rugged mountain parish—an embarrassment to local Bishop Obispo (Ernesto G�mez Cruz), though he's happy to receive the monetary kickbacks that support Catholic charity work. The Bishop drops plenty of F bombs and confides to Padre Amaro that he expects him to revitalize the Church in the area, thus setting up the basic motivation for the young priest.
Had the screenplay developed more internal conflict with Padre Amaro, it would have retained the same tension promised in the opening scenes. Bernal demonstrates that he can carry the complexities of the role during the opening sequences; unfortunately, the young Amaro suffers no real moral quandaries as soon as he adopts the idea that his priestly ambitions are paramount. Thus, when told to write a rebuttal to an accurate newspaper account linking the Church to drug dealers, he does so without remorse, despite knowing the truth. The same pattern occurs with each potential dilemma, and any questions he poses come across coldly—the decision for self-preservation remains. Although this establishes Amaro's character with consistency, it doesn't make for compelling drama, and the second half plays flatly—enjoyable only for worshippers of melodrama and banal morality plays.
Some moments promise much more than the film eventually delivers. Early moments between Amaro and the sensual Amelia ring true—certainly youthful priests forced into vows of chastity face sexual dilemmas when parishioners come on to them, and Bernal's initial reactions retain the tension and are believable. So is his confessional shock when Amelia reveals that she "touches herself" when thinking of Jesus. Inevitably this leads to his fall, as well as the downward predictable spiral of the film when he gives into his passion while staunchly keeping his main vocational priorities in mind.
As much as Church officials blasted Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ for its surreal dream sequence portraying a married Jesus and Mary Magdalene in a loving sexual relationship, the outrage against El Crimen del Padre Amaro should be even higher considering the implications. Not only does this explore clerical fornication and visit the abortion issue, but the screenplay suggests a sexual relationship between Jesus (considering Amelia's masturbatory fantasies) and the Virgin Mary when the priest inevitably gives in to the young virgin. He even goes so far as to dress her up as the Virgin Mary in one of many instances of overkill.
Carrera's film is basically competent and has redeeming value for its still-relevant themes that question the wisdom of priestly celibacy. Is it really wrong to be in love? Why can't the professional clergy maintain a normal family life? These are questions that have plagued the Church for years, but don't expect the Church to address this issue due to this ordinary melodrama that is heavy on religious symbols but wafer-thin on dramatic substance.