In Mexico, it may not be news when the bad guy wins a real-life election. But in the movies, when the bad guy wins, it creates a national scandal.

Moviegoers arrived Sunday afternoon for the screening of the first big-scale Mexican movie ever to openly criticize, by name, the political party that has ruled the country for the past 70 years. So sorry, they were told: The preview had been postponed due to a broken projector.

Movie producers and the Mexican arts community immediately cried "Censorship!"

"I thought it might cause some trouble because lots of people were going to see themselves reflected in the mirrors we've set up in the movie," said Luis Estrada, producer of "Herod's Law," which reviewers have described as a groundbreaking production. "But I didn't think they would try to sabotage the film."

Estrada said his cinematic tale reflects the day-to-day politics of Mexico: A politician runs for city mayor vowing to stop corruption and close down a profitable town brothel. Politician wins. Politician keeps brothel open and becomes just as corrupt as his predecessor. Politician then runs for the national Congress--and wins. Moral of the movie: Corruption pays.

The allegations of government censorship of a movie that depicts Mexican politicians as Mexicans often see them comes just as the ruling party is trying to convince voters that it has reformed its intolerant, authoritarian ways. Last month, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known by its Spanish initials as the PRI, conducted its first-ever presidential primary as a prelude to what many political observers believe will be the country's most competitive presidential campaign in seven decades.

"This is the first time that the PRI has been mentioned by name in a movie like this and that its logo has appeared," said Arturo Garcia, cultural analyst for the daily newspaper La Jornada. "Other movies have only portrayed corruption as an allegory. It's also a hilarious film that is likely to be attractive to a wide audience."

President Ernest Zedillo has spent most of his tenure in office trying to reform his party, often against the wishes of older, establishment politicians, only to wake up this morning to newspaper headlines accusing one of his own government agencies of censorship.

"This sends a terrible message," said a government official close to Zedillo. "A political decision to censor a film goes against six years of the president's position on the media and freedom of expression."

As a result, the president's office and the government's top cultural officials today were putting as much distance as possible between themselves and the mid-level official they accused of making the decision to prevent the screening of "Herod's Law," even floating advance word of that official's imminent resignation.

While Mexican television programs have undergone a revolution, with realistic plot lines depicting the corruption and violence that are a part of everyday life in Mexico, the country's government-subsidized film industry has been far more cautious in its approach to realism.

"Some people say that it's impossible that the government is giving money to do pictures or support artists and they use that money to make products against the government," said Javier Gonzalez Rubio, a member of the government committee that reviewed the proposed film and recommended it for government funding through the National Culture and Arts Council. "But self-censorship is the worst censorship in the world."

Gonzalez said that in the script he submitted, Estrada did not mention the PRI by name--though it was obvious what party he was referring to--and offered "another ending, a conventional ending where the bad people get punishment. It was a happy ending, very good for the conscience." The explicit use of the PRI's name and the bad-guys-win ending were inserted later, during filming, he said.

Estrada said the script underwent only "normal" revision during production. "They told people I had given them the script for Mary Poppins and ended up producing hard-core porn," he said.

Nevertheless, Gonzalez, who formerly worked in President Zedillo's press office, said the changes did not warrant any attempts to interfere in the release of the movie. "Someone at this time trying to make an act of censorship is crazy. . . . Everybody knows we have already been through that."

"Herod's Law" has been a focus of political and artistic controversy since it was scheduled to be screened at an Acapulco film festival last month. The Mexican Film Institute, the government agency that overseas movie production for the National Culture and Arts Council, attempted to prevent the showing of the movie, but relented under strong pressure from vocal actors and producers.

The movie was then scheduled for a major opening this week in Mexico City. But the Mexican Film Institute quietly released the movie in two Mexico City theaters last Friday, then abruptly canceled its scheduled screening Sunday afternoon even as patrons were waiting in line to enter the theater. A second theater showed an out-of-focus copy of the film.

Film Institute Director Eduardo Amerena told Mexican newspapers that the delay was due to a variety of technical problems and denied he has tried to censor the film. But Rafael Tovar, president of the culture and arts council, said in an interview today that he has asked Amerena for his resignation because he "made erroneous decisions and [the film institute's] conduct was erratic."

Amerena declined to return telephone calls from The Washington Post today. The chief of production for the institute already has resigned, according to government officials.

In an attempt to further defuse the controversy, the cultural council said Tuesday that it would give the film's producers a low-interest loan to allow them to buy out the government's financial contributions. The producers will be able to distribute and market "Herod's Law" on their own.

Researcher Garance Burke contributed to this story.

CAPTION: Producer Luis Estrada, left, and Rafael Tovar.