Movie Review

A novel with a timeless theme written more than a century ago inspired a film that seems to spin out of today's scandalous headlines about a Church that has not come to grips with its own humanity.

The Crime of Father Amaro

Graciela Ramsay

Eça de Queiroz wrote O crime do Padre Amaro in 1875. If you can find the movie version of this novel (it was filmed last year in a contemporary Mexican setting and released in the U.S. in December by Samuel Goldwyn Films), you may be startled to find that the Church was grappling with the humanity of its priests even then – and just as unsuccessfully then as now.

The Crime of Father Amaro is a tale of love, lust and self-delusion played against the backdrop of Church power in a Catholic country.

When the handsome, young, newly-ordained Father Amaro catches a bus to his first assignment in a small mountain town, he is the very model of a good, caring (and careful) priest. Strong-arm robbers board the bus, and snatch an old man's money. When they rush off into the night, Father Amaro gives the peasant all the pesos he had lost. When young ladies in the village gush over him, he blushes and withdraws, even shrinks back in alarm when one of his young parishioners, pretty 16-year-old Amelia, touches the back of his hand.

But his goodness soon gets derailed by the normal desires of a young man. Amelia tells him she wants to become a nun, but confesses that she is "very sensual.” That's all the encouragement he needs. He seduces her and secures a back room in the sacristan’s house where, ostensibly, he can get her ready for the convent. The room is nothing more than a cover; it is their love nest. Father Amaro soothes his conscience with the knowledge that, after all, his own superior, Father Benito, has a mistress.

In the meantime, Father Amaro ingratiates himself with his bishop by serving as the bishop's emissary to Father Natalio, a parish priest in the hinterlands who is showing his people that it is okay to hunger and thirst after justice. Father Amaro is impressed with this humble man. Could he help him understand his own humanity? No. Father Amaro doesn't know how to ask for help. He is caught up in abstractions. He wonders instead to Father Natalio, "Do you know anything about moral theology?" Father Amaro doesn't need moral theology. He needs to read Matthew 25. "Whatsoever you do for the least of my brethren, you do it for me." And follow it.

Fine contrast here. Father Natalio gives bread to the hungry. Father Amaro gives him a letter of dismissal from the bishop. The bishop has another task for Father Amaro. He is to call on the editor of a local newspaper and threaten his ruin if he runs a story discrediting the Church. With a mixture of charm and arrogance, Father Amaro delivers the bishop's warning with the steely aplomb of a mafioso. He is learning fast, learning how to gain power in the Church.

Amelia becomes pregnant. She has every reason to expect Father Amaro will marry her. He thinks he has a better reason to say no than your average irresponsible jerk. He says, "What about my priesthood?"

Devastated to find out that her lover is an above-average irresponsible jerk, she goes off to visit an abortionist, but the cutter botches things, and she bleeds to death in the front seat of Father Amaro's truck as he speeds with her toward a local hospital. Afterward, Father Amaro turns the town's suspicion on a young reporter who once had a yen for Amelia, but the sacristan suspects the worst. Father Amaro terminates him for knowing too much. Father Amaro is no longer a godly man; he’s now a cold-blooded ecclesiastical operator.

But the faithful are all too unaware. In his priestly vestments, presiding over her funeral Mass, Father Amaro says all the right words, but he says them in an icy tone. His moves are all liturgically correct, but he makes them in a trance. One shudders to think what his future will bring.

Carlos Carrera's direction is restrained – and eloquent in its reticence. His style reminds me of the work of the Spanish director, Luis Buñuel, who was perpetually at war with the Catholic Church, and the neorealism of the Italian director Vittorio De Sica.

Naturally, the Mexican clergy asked Mexico's faithful to boycott the film. They did nothing of the sort. Spurred on by the Mexican press, they have made El Crimen Mexico’s highest-grossing domestic film ever.

This film was an official entry for best foreign film at the 75th Academy Awards in March.

‘El Crimen  del Padre Amaro’
MPAA rating: R for sexuality, language and some disturbing images
Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Gael García Bernal ....... Padre Amaro
Ana Claudia Talancón .......... Amelia
Sancho García ................ Padre Benito
Damián Alcazar ........... Padre Natalio
Angélica Aragón .............. Sanjuanera

Director Carlos Carrera.
Producers Alfredo Ripstein, Daniel Birman Ripstein.
Executive producer Laura Imperiale.
Screenplay Vicente Leñero.
Cinematographer Guillermo Granillo.
Editor Oscar Figueroa.
Costumes Mariestela Fernández.
Music Rosino Serrano.
Art director Carmen Giménez Cacho.

Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes. In limited release.

Graciela Ramsay emigrated from Mexico to the U.S. as a teenager. She has degrees from Cal State University Dominguez Hills and UCLA, and she now works in Los Angeles as a translator. She has done the Spanish subtitles for a number of Hollywood movies, and the English subtitles for the award-winning Like Water for Chocolate. Her mother, Armida Miller, is a noted poet in the Hispanic community in Los Angeles.