Sins of the Father

As a polemic about church hypocrisy, El Crimen del Padre Amaro may be controversial, but it is ultimately predictable


El Crimen del Padre Amaro
Carlos Carrera
2002, Alameda/Artcam/Blu/Cinecolor/Foprocine
/Edo Veracruz/Ibermedia/IMICINE
118 mins, Spanish with English subtitles

Reviewed by Eugene Carey

LATAMROB rating: ***

THE THEME OF priestly iniquity in rural Latin America is nothing new and has been the altar on which many a prayer condemning Catholic corruption and soiled cassocks has been recited.

Indeed, Carlos Carrera’s El Crimen del Padre Amaro is based on a story written in the 19th century by the celebrated Portuguese writer José Maria Eça de Queiroz. Others have followed suit, not least Graham Greene, whose The Power and the Glory begins with a whiskey priest haunted by the guilt of having fathered a child arriving in a rural Mexican town.

Carrera’s rendering of Eça de Queiroz’s work depicts a corrupt Mexican Catholic church in which the central character Padre Amaro (Gael García Bernal) is unable to resist temptation; the ageing and complacent Father Benito (Sancho Gracia) is receiving funds from a drug trafficker; and there are links between another priest and guerrillas.

Wake-up call

This Oscar-nominated portrayal of the hypocrisy characterising an institution once at the very heart of Latin American life caused bitter controversy in Mexico, although bishops in the country deftly – and maybe even honestly – described it as a wake-up call. The skilful screenplay by Vicente Leñero ensured this would become one of Mexico’s highest grossing movies. It is possible that it did not have a greater impact internationally only because, by the time this film came out, scandal within the Catholic church was almost the daily fare of the western media.

The handsome young Padre Amaro (Gael García Bernal) arrives in the small town of Los Reynes to continue his religious instruction and meets a devout, and beautiful, member of the congregation, Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancón). One thing leads to another and the pair end up consummating a passionate, but forbidden, relationship as the corrupt practices of his fellow clerics emerge into view.

As Amaro’s physical world collapses around him, so does his spiritual world, the inversion of which leads him and his innocent consort to commit mortal sin, with devastating consequences.

Just as Greene was wrestling with original sin and loss of purpose, Carrera and Leñero juggle with the manipulation of religious instruction and meaning, and their characters are all punished or lose the possibility of redemption.

Yet El Crimen del Padre Amaro is, ultimately, formulaic and, it has to be said, predictable.

Although Carrera and Leñero play skilfully upon Catholic iconography by portraying Amelia as a latter-day Mary, whose conception is caused – and curtailed – by an increasingly dark, fallen angel, Amaro, there is a crudeness about the metaphors employed and an inevitability about the priest’s descent.

Indeed, the employment of such biblical certainty in the conclusion contradicts the subtle, nuanced examination of priestly mortality to which the success of this film can be attributed.

Eugene Carey is a freelance journalist