Movie review, 'El Crimen del Padre Amaro'

In "El Crimen del Padre Amaro (The Crime of Father Amaro)," the top film in Mexican box-office history, director Carlos Carrera indicts the Catholic Church's representatives on a variety of charges, but not the one (pedophilia) that you would expect. Instead, the priests and bishop we see here are guilty of some other major sins: fornication, hypocrisy, mendacity, and collaborating with drug lords and guerillas.

The movie, a polished treatment of a lurid subject, was adapted from the 19th-century Portuguese novel by Jose Maria Eca de Queiroz, and its huge Mexican box-office success (toppling the old record of "Y Tu Mama Tambien") was to some extent thanks to the Catholic Church in Mexico and its highly publicized disapproval of the film's muckraking. Also a big draw: "Tambien" star Gael Garcia Bernal, the boyish, liquid-eyed Romeo who plays lovelorn Father Amaro.

The story, freely adapted from Queiroz, takes Bernal's fresh-spirited, seemingly idealistic but vulnerable Father Amaro through a chastening journey. Traveling to a new parish at the behest of a somewhat Machiavellian bishop (Ernesto Gomez Cruz), he stumbles into a snake pit of crime and temptation.

Evil descends like a cloud. Bandits rob the padre's bus. He learns that his superior, fiery-eyed Father Benito (Sancho Gracia), is sleeping with local restaurateur Sanjuanera (Anjelica Aragon) and consorting with the local drug king. His most Christ-like colleague, Father Natalio (Damian Alcazar), is mixed up with peasant radicals. And Sanjuanera's daughter Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancon) is a temptation he can't resist. (Soon he's giving her secret religious instruction and dressing her as the Virgin Mary for their trysts.) Lurking in the church shadows like a bad omen is pious but obnoxious Dionisia (Luisa Huertas), who has access to precisely the kind of illegal medical aid Amaro and Amelia will eventually need.

Though "Crimen" is a shallow, seamy melodrama in some ways - and not in the artistic league of "Y Tu Mama," much less "Los Olvidados" or "Amores Perros" - it is not a bad film. Though it struck me as preachy and Stanley Kramerish in its premiere at the Chicago Film Festival, it holds up on a second viewing. The movie is rather brave in its condemnations of social and religious hypocrisy and its expose of political corruption.

Carrera's style is hard-hitting, lucid and technically superior (if unimaginative). "El Crimen del Padre Amaro" eventually moves and stirs you, even if it often resembles those steamy Mexican TV dramas/soap operas called telenovelas. "Crimen."

2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
"El Crimen del Padre Amaro"
Directed by Carlos Carrera; written by Vicente Lenero, based on the novel by Jose Maria Eca de Queiroz; photographed by Guillermo Granillo; edited by Oscar Figueroa; production designed by Carmen Giminez Cacho; music by Rosino Serrano; produced by Alfredo Ripstein, Daniel Birman Ripstein. A Samuel Goldwyn Films release; Spanish, with English subtitles. Opens Friday. Running time: 1:58. MPAA rating: R (sensuality and language).
Father Amaro - Gael Garcia Bernal
Father Benito - Sancho Gracia
Amelia - Ana Claudia Talancon
Sanjuanera - Anjelica Aragon
Dionisia - Luisa Huertas
Father Natalio - Damian Alcazar Bishop - Ernesto Gomez Cruz

Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.

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