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'The Crime of Father Amaro'

Priests get no respect in 'Amaro'

Friday, January 17, 2003

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Believers and non-believers alike keep tossing brickbats at the Catholic Church, and the latest is in the form of a Mexican movie, "The Crime of Father Amaro."


RATING: R for sexuality, language and some disturbing images..

STARRING: Gael Garcia Bernal.

DIRECTOR: Carlos Carrera.


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As an indictment of the church and its "black politics," it is strong stuff. Two priests are having sex with female parishioners, another is suspected of helping the guerrillas where he lives, and drug money is finding its way into the wrong pockets.

As a movie, it's vividly cast and realized, although it descends even further into the melodramatic with its you-see-it-coming, over-the-top ending. Although set in 2002, the film is based on an 1875 Portuguese novel, and one subplot is not unrealistic but feels anachronistic.

"Crime," at the Regent Square Theater, revolves around a small parish church in Los Reyes, Mexico, where 24-year-old Father Amaro (Gael Garcia Bernal) has arrived to assist an older priest, Father Benito (Sancho Gracia). Amaro is a favorite of the bishop, and it is clear he's targeted for bigger things.

Amaro quickly realizes church rules are being bent or broken and soon finds himself attracted to the devout and beautiful 16-year-old Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancon). Any love or lust for Amelia pales next to his devotion to the church, which promises him the sort of influence and reach that a lay job never could. Amaro, the bishop's reluctant enforcer, increasingly becomes more sinner than saint.

The source novel was a fictional account of religious betrayal and corruption, and some of it is as contemporary as ever. But, to me, the movie feels like it's "piling on."

The priest with the purest motives seems to have thrown in with his guerrilla flock and defies the bishop; another seems overly fond of food and drink. A crazy lady tries to feed a communion wafer to her sick cat, and when the priest with the sensuous lips kisses the girl in church, you want to shout, "Good heavens, man, look where you are."

Director Carlos Carrera ably demonstrates the hold of the church, its power and problems and allows Garcia Bernal (one of the lusty teens in "Y Tu Mama Tambien") to slowly expose a stiff spine and manipulative manner under that sexy, sensitive shell. But you never learn what propelled him into the priesthood. Vocation, ambition, both?

"Crime" raises the issue of celibacy but gives any thoughtful discussion short shrift. It also asks if dirty money can ever be cleansed by being put to good use and, to better effect, explores rationalizations for bad behavior.

Your reaction, like mine, may depend on your religious upbringing. Because in the end, you can take the movie reviewer out of the Catholic school but you can never take the Catholic schooling out of the reviewer.

Barbara Vancheri can be reached atbvancheri@post-gazette.com . Her telephone number: 412-263-1632.

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