It's a Sin

A sensation in Mexico, where it broke Y TuMamá También's opening-weekend record and is now the highest-grossing homemade movie in the nation's history, El Crimen del Padre Amaro is a robust anti-clerical melodrama—alternately satirical and gothic.

Carlos Carrera, the movie's 40-year-old director, has located this romantic tragedy—the fatal love affair between an ambitious young priest and an even younger (and more devout) virgin—in the iconoclastic, affably lurid tradition of Luis Buñuel and, particularly, Arturo Ripstein (whose father and nephew produced the movie). Indeed, the elder Ripstein—a patriarch of Mexican cinema—had evidently spent 30 years trying to make the film, which has been adapted by Vicente Leñero from an exceedingly sardonic novel by Portugal's greatest 19th-century author, José María Eça de Queiróz.

The material is scarcely dated. Obviously, this is a movie that found its moment—although Mexican president Vicente Fox (for whose campaign Carrera produced TV commercials) delayed its release until after the pope's Mexican visit. Padre Amaro is scarcely subtle in showing the church as a racket and the priesthood as a cushy gig, at least for some. Sent to assist the priest in a rural village, well-connected, newly ordained Father Amaro is soon the local heartthrob. (With his dewy features and Bambi eyes, Gael García Bernal, the post-adolescent star of Amores Perros and Y Tu Mamá También, is especially suited to the role.) The pretty, pious Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancón), a Sunday-school-teaching teen, is immediately smitten by the boyish padre, using a trip to the confessional to demurely inform Father Amaro that she masturbates. "Sensuality is no sin," he replies, only to be nonplussed by her response that she thinks about Jesus when she caresses herself in the bath.

Crimen and punishment: García Bernal kisses it better.
photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Crimen and punishment: García Bernal kisses it better.


El Crimen Del Padre Amaro
Directed by Carlos Carrera
Written by Vicente Leero, from the novel by Jos Mara Ea de Queirz
Samuel Goldwyn
Opens November 15

Hell House
Directed by George Ratliff
Seventh Art
Opens November 15, at Cinema Village

Standing in the Shadows of Motown
Directed by Paul Justman
Written by Walter Dallas and Ntozake Shange
Opens November 15

This Buñuelian touch is the work of veteran screenwriter Leñero (who, among many other films, co-wrote the politically incendiary Herod's Law). But to a surprising amount, such jokes have their parallels in the original novel's social critique. Indeed, the movie's major departure from Eça de Queiróz is in updating the story to the present and having the pampered, worldly clerics involved with drug lords, corrupt politicians, and possibly guerrillas, as well as girls. Unbeknownst to Amelia, her widowed mother is already the mistress of Amaro's superior, the dapper Father Benito (Sancho Gracia). "It would be easier for the church to have a Mexican pope than to give up celibacy," tormented Benito tells his new assistant when Amaro expresses a naive belief that there would be "less trouble" were sexual abstinence optional.

A complicated character in a morally gray (if nonetheless colorful) world, Amaro is both sincere and duplicitous, progressive and opportunistic. This socially aware idealist quietly admires the conviction of the excommunicated liberation priest Father Natalio. But whatever his qualms, he is readily drafted to destroy the reputation of the young reporter—conveniently, Amelia's boyfriend—who has been bold enough to expose the laundered drug money that Father Benito is using to build a grand new hospital. (Anything but otherworldly, the clerics here enforce the reality principle.)

As one scandal engulfs the pueblo, ardent Amaro and the sweetly tempestuous Amelia embark upon another—starting in church, where the looming statues of Jesus and Mary are not the only beings who watch over their love affair. The couple's first kiss is observed by a half-mad old bruja who lives amid Ripsteinian clutter, stealing holy wafers to feed her cats; their love is consummated in the writhing presence of the sacristan's daughter, a strange, spastic creature whom Amelia is supposedly instructing in catechism. Amaro's cover is that he's training Amelia to be a nun—and he does teach her the Song of Songs and even, in the movie's most notorious bit of business, feverishly dresses her in the Virgin's blue satin cloak. But, of course, Padre Amaro is less an exercise in blasphemy than a critique of the restrictions that organized religion puts on natural behavior. The unfortunate consequences of Amaro and Amelia's illicit union ensure that the girl will be sacrificed on the altar of the priest's career.

Carrera's filmmaking is more workmanlike than stylish, but Padre Amaro is richly character driven and, for all its insolent, grotesque humor, straightforwardly humanist in its psychology. Buñuel might have found it almost sentimentally Christian. The greatest crime in this world is that of betrayal. As long as they have each other, the movie's baby-faced lovers (and even their middle-aged counterparts) are always in the right. The social pressure that extinguishes love is always wrong. Confident in its logic and passionate in its cynicism, Padre Amaro dares any believer to throw the first stone.

Lookin' for sin, American-style? Try Hell House, which documents the cautionary Christian spook-a-rama of the same name. "I wish you didn't have to see the things you're going to see," one of the impresarios says, somewhat less than convincingly. Darn it to heck. He's talking about the abortions, date rapes, car wrecks, and AIDS deaths enthusiastically staged, with talk-show hysteria and ample fake gore, by the student zealots of the Trinity Assembly of God, a Pentecostal high school in suburban Dallas.

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