Bearing subtle but uncanny structural similarities to American mob movies like "The Godfather" and "Goodfellas," Mexico's highest grossing homegrown film of all time is a substantive parable about an honorable young priest corrupted by desire, temptation, ego and ethical turpitude within the Catholic Church.
"El crimen del Padre Amaro" stars sharply handsome Gael García Bernal (ubiquitous of late in the Mexican imports "Amores Perros" and "Y Tu Mamá También") as Father Amaro, an eager, newly ordained, 24-year-old priest whose ideals are tested and found wanting when he's assigned to a small-town parish run by an canon-transgressing elder clergyman.
Father Benito (Sancho Gracia) may be dedicated to his congregation, but he's also in bed figuratively with local drug cartels -- their donations are funding construction of a new church-run hospital -- and literally with a local widow (Angélica Aragón). Coincidentally, it is this woman's eye-catchingly angelic, devout but extremely sensual teenage daughter Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancón) who is the initial catalyst for Father Amaro's downfall.
A liberal young cleric, Amaro is no supporter of the chastity his office requires, but the fact that he's willing to weave a web of lies to facilitate his seduction of this intelligent but naive girl hints at the slippery slope of his virtue. Meanwhile, Amelia's rookie journalist ex-boyfriend (Andrés Montiel) -- jealous of her faith and her obvious infatuation with the new priest -- takes it upon himself to investigative the parish's drug connections. It isn't long before a mob-boss-like bishop is asking Amaro to strong-arm the newspaper into silence, a task he takes to alarmingly well, despite his own concerns about the very same matters.
Adapted and updated from an 1875 novel by Jose Maria Eca de Queiroz, "Padre Amaro" isn't so much a film about one man's weak moral character as it is a commentary on the culture within the Catholic clergy's power structure that encourages its intrinsic instinct to cover up its scandals. Although Amaro is the picture's protagonist, he isn't meant to be an entirely sympathetic figure, but rather a symbol of how even a soul with good intentions can rapidly decay in a person without moral courage.
Even as Father Amaro struggles with his principles, he begins to consider his position in the church above all else -- including Amelia's heedless romantic devotion -- leading to blackmail, blasphemy, deception and tragedy.
Director Carlos Carrera does not pass judgement on Father Amaro, Father Benito or another area priest, who is excommunicated for supporting a band of peasant guerillas. His purpose is to look into these men's hearts and let pity or indignation fall where they may. And to that end, he's garnered veritable, very human performances from Bernal and Gracia that embody both piety and fallibility, both depth and arrogance, both faith and apathy.
This is not a movie for those who want their heroes absolved and their plot resolved. But it is a movie that puts you in the position of each central character -- Amaro, Benito, Amelia, the young reporter and his editor -- asks tough questions of conscience, and provides a lot of food for thought.
For the record, "El crimen del Padre Amaro" is Mexico's official entry to be considered for this year's Foreign Film Oscar nominations.
Run time: 118 mins
In Theaters: Friday 16th August 2002
Box Office USA: $5.4M
Distributed by: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Production compaines: Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografía, Alameda Films, Cinecolor-México, Cinecolor-Argentina, Artcam y Fonds Sud Cinéma
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 62%
Fresh: 51 Rotten: 31
IMDB: 6.8 / 10
Director: Carlos Carrera
Starring: Gael García Bernal as Padre Amaro, Ana Claudia Talancón as Amelia, Sancho Gracia as Padre Benito Díaz, Angélica Aragón as Augustina Sanjuanera, Ernesto Gómez Cruz as Obispo, Gastón Melo as Martín, Damián Alcázar as Padre Natalio Pérez, Andrés Montiel as Rubén de la Rosa, Pedro Armendáriz, Jr. as El Presidente Municipal Gordo, Blanca Loaria as Getsemaní, Juan Ignacio Aranda as Chato Aguilar, Verónica Langer as Amparito, Jorge Zárate as Padre Mauro, Lorenzo de Rodas as Don Paco de la Rosa, Roger Nevares as Padre Galván
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