*El Crimen del Padre Amaro (R)
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Mingling sex, religion, piety and corruption, El Crimen del Padre Amaro caused the most controversy and was the biggest box office draw in the Mexican film scene of last year.
Starring hunky Gael Garcia Bernal, fresh from acclaimed performances in Amores Perros and Y Tu Mama Tambien, the film lacks the innovativeness and the edginess of those two films. But what it lacks in originality, it makes up for in honesty, sheer beauty and sensuousness.
Padre Amaro (Bernal), recently ordained into the priesthood at 24, arrives fresh off the back of the turnip truck in the village of Los Reyes where he is to assist the aging Padre Benito, ruefully played by Sancho Gracia. Right away he meets Amelia, played by beautiful Ana Claudia Talancn, a pious 16-year-old who is torn between her love for the church and her lust for her boyfriend, a non-believer, son of the town heretic.
But Amelia's fascination with all things holy and priestly, especially cute Padre Amaro, quickly wins out. Turns out her mother, Sanjuanera (Anglica Aragn) has been frequenting Padre Benito's bed for years. As they say: like mother, like daughter.
The film is populated with a subcast of stock townspeople, most notably the local witch/crazy woman Dionisia (Luisa Huertas) who, in a mesmerizing scene, feeds the communion wafer to her creepy, arthritic cat.
A subplot involves Padre Natalio (Damin Alczar), another parish priest who ministers to the poor in a mountain settlement and is suspected of assisting guerilla troops. Because Padre Amaro has been hand-picked by the bishop to oversee developments in the parish, he is put in the uncomfortable position of delivering ultimatums to Padre Natalio, a man he admires, while white-washing Padre Benito's well-known laundering of drug money to build a new hospital.
Meanwhile, Padre Amaro has become carnally entangled with the lovely Amelia, meeting with her in the back bedroom of a parishioner's house when he is supposed to be teaching her catechism. Oh lovely, luscious mortal sin! No wonder the movie created shock waves across Catholic Mexico -- in one scene the priest wraps his paramour in a blue cloth adorned with stars, handmade by one of the women of the church to cloak the statue of the Virgin Mary.
Bernal's face carries much of the film. The actor has a natural innocence that fits perfectly here, watching as corruption swirls about him, struggling to maintain a pure heart while soiling his flesh and the future of a young girl, trying to maintain worthy motives while being swept into a web of ambition and deception.
El Crimen del Padre Amaro doesn't probe very deeply at the many moral questions it raises, but it raises them exquisitely. Directed by Carlos Carrera, it is a well-made, old-fashioned button popper with lots of heaving cleavage, where those who sin are sure to get their comeuppance, one way or another. Nods from the Golden Globes and the National Board of Review have widened the film's national release in the U.S., and it is well deserving of a wide audience. (In Spanish with English subtitles)
-- Kathryn Eastburn