The Sins of the Fathers

By Ann Hornaday
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 29, 2002

Carlos Carrera's "El Crimen del Padre Amaro" opened in Mexico recently and quickly became the most successful indigenous film ever in that country. Carrera and screenwriter Vincente Lenero most likely would attribute that success – as well as a promising early run in U.S. art houses – to the film's bold confrontation of political issues within the Catholic church.

Fans of "El Crimen del Padre Amaro" ("The Crime of Father Amaro") have probably been more interested in luxuriating in its melodrama, so tawdry as to hark back to the "women's pictures" of the 1940s. Those films, like this one, often couched subversive social commentary within soapy plots and tragic characters. Formally speaking, "El Crimen del Padre Amaro" is as pandering and simplistic as the worst of the weepies, but there's no denying that it's hitting a nerve – one made all the more raw with each revelation of abuses of clerical power.

The film opens with Father Amaro (Gael Garcia Bernal) traveling by bus through the Mexican countryside. The last time audiences saw Bernal, he was driving through the same sort of country in the scorching, sensual coming-of-age tale "Y Tu Mama Tambien." Unlike that film, "El Crimen del Padre Amaro" doesn't boil with sexual energy as much as simmer. Young, handsome Father Amaro arrives in a tiny rural town to assist its church's priest, and he immediately draws appreciative glances from the pious young women who teach catechism. One in particular, the devout Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancon), is drawn to the priest, who finds himself similarly attracted during a particularly erotic confession. Soon enough, they consummate their mutual passion. In the meantime, Amaro's parishioners and colleagues are all pursuing their own extra-ecclesiastical activities, from Padre Benito (Sancho Gracia), who observes his vows of chastity only selectively, to Padre Natalio (Damian Alcazar), whose brand of liberation theology has the conservative bishop in a sanctimonious swivet.

Based on a 19th-century novel by Eca de Queiros, "El Crimen del Padre Amaro" leads inexorably to a Grand Guignol of tears, recriminations and even death. But within the confines of such overheated emotion, both Bernal and Talancon succeed in finding layers of quiet complexity in their ill-fated characters. It's understandable that, for millions of lay Catholics who currently feel betrayed by their leaders, this unforgiving portrait of clerical hypocrisy might be cathartic. And surely Catholics aren't the only ones who can relate to the film's message. "El Crimen del Padre Amaro" is a lurid but timeless reminder that the bureaucracies and regulations of organized religion have nothing to do – indeed are often at odds – with living a God-ward life.

EL CRIMEN DEL PADRE AMARO (R, 120 minutes) Contains sexual activity, profanity and some disturbing images. In Spanish with subtitles at area theaters.

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