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.
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.
This fundamentalist Grand Guignol, a sort of local Oberammergau, draws thousands of pilgrims each Halloween and, since its creation in 1990, has been imitated all over the country—making national headlines a few years back with a tastelessly graphic dramatization of the massacre at Columbine High. Context is all: The same thing that served Michael Moore as an attention-grabbing means to attack Lockheed Martin and the NRA was here an equally exploitative warning against Satanism. Indeed, seeing Hell House, one wonders why the Catholic Church did not embrace Padre Amaro, which is nothing if not graphic in showing the horrifying result of several mortal sins.
As documented by George Ratliff, there’s a friendly let’s-put-on-a-show aspect to the Hell House preparations—not too far from the realm of a Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney musical. The students and their mentors hold auditions, build sets, and discuss new material. (This year’s theme: Those who have not embraced Jesus are . . . the Walking Dead.) As with any show, performing in Hell House is conducive to couple formation. The kids discuss what’s “funnest,” deciding that “the rave scene is best because you get to dance.” The filmmakers intermittently focus on a harried, hopelessly overweight single father of five (his wife left him for someone she met on the Net) as his daughter successfully tries out for the mega-histrionic part of the “abortion girl.” This is rich material for social comedy, but Ratliff takes too long to reach opening night. Then, all is forgiven, as Satanic, exaggeratedly sneering barkers guide the nachos-noshing tour groups through the loud and bloody tableaux. There’s audible gasping, but some members of the audience are contentious. “Who’s to say what’s a sin,” one rowdy demands, accusing Hell House of purveying “Christian faggot shit.”
Like any fire-and-brimstone sermon, Hell House ends with a vision of eternal damnation and a Jesus Saves hard-sell. For me, the scariest thing in the movie was hearing a fresh-faced, middle-class white teenager, comfortably nestled in the heart of a country that routinely proclaims itself the greatest place on earth, seriously explain that we are living in “an ugly, evil world . . . the worst that it’s ever been.”
Standing in the Shadows of Motown pays homage to the Detroit record-label house—or, should we say, basement—band responsible for more No. 1 hits than any other ensemble in the history of the world. These musicians, not a few of whom came from jazz backgrounds, referred to themselves as the Funk Brothers; the movie’s point is that no one else knows their names. Paul Justman’s affectionate doc provides the pleasure of hearing one classic pop hook after another performed by a still tight unit, as well as the spectacle of veteran sidemen sitting around talking music. (The movie would have benefited from more period footage and fewer restaged scenes.)
Although an implicit reproach to Motown’s corporate culture, Standing in the Shadows doesn’t have much to say about economics—or writers and producers, let alone the hit factory’s inventor, Berry Gordy. The modern numbers, perversely, tend to focus more on the singers than the surviving members of the Funk Brothers, but are no less compelling for that. Indeed, the jazz roots of the Motown sound are triumphantly revealed in Meshell Ndegeocello’s laconic interpretation of “Cloud 9” and Chaka Khan’s expansive version of “What’s Going On?”