On the eve of the Mexico City premier of El Crimen del Padre Amaro, a highly indignant priest named Julián Martínez bared his soul to the national press. “I’ve told people thousands of times not to go see it,” he declared to the daily newspaper Reforma. “I hope there’s a Church-led boycott. I don’t take a shit in the street, but if I did, everybody would protest. These people are shitting in the street, speaking foul and dirty language.”
The film that so provoked Father Julían tells the story of a young priest, Padre Amaro, who falls in love with a young female parishioner. Loosely based on a nineteenth-century novel about religious hypocrisy written by the Portuguese author and diplomat Eça de Queiroz, the film was directed by Carlos Carrera–who also created Vicente Fox’s television campaign in the 2000 presidential race. Vicente Leñero (a highly respected novelist and playwright whose screenwriting credits include La Ley de Herodes (1999), an over-the-top spoof of political corruption) adapted the novel. Using Eça’s characters–and with liberal borrowings from contemporary Mexican history–they have made a movie that skewers the Church’s positions on sensuality, politics, and censorship. Overt anti-clericalism is nothing new among Mexico’s cultural elite, but Padre Amaro is a definite departure, providing a gritty portrayal of priests involved in drug running, participating in social protest, fornicating with female parishioners, and paying for an abortion. (In the film’s lighter, more satirical moments, a religious mystic feeds the host to her cat; another scene features young children gleefully feeding on cajeta-smeared communion wafers.)
In years past, the Church managed to kill a television soap opera featuring a love story with a priest. It pressured a major corporation to pull its advertising from a broadcast program investigating sexual abuse allegations involving Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ. And it ensured that Martin Scorcese’s controversial Last Temptation of Christ never opened in Mexico. This time around the hierarchy tried to shame the Fox government for allowing the Mexican Film Institute (IMCINE) to fund the movie. It threatened to excommunicate Gael García Bernal, who plays Amaro, and Ana Claudia Talancón, who plays his lover, Amelia. The anti-abortion group, Pro Vida, filed suit against several government officials, including Interior Minister Santiago Creel. Meanwhile, another member of the Fox Cabinet–the arch-conservative Labor Minister Carlos Abascal–joined Father Martínez in calling for a boycott.(Eighteen months ago Abascal cried blasphemy and had a teacher fired from his daughter’s private school for teaching Carlos Fuentes’ novel Aura.) The uproar caused the movie’s premier to be postponed until after the Pope visited Mexico last July–but was not sufficient to postpone it indefinitely. Padre Amaro opened last August to immediate box-office success. The low-budget production (less than two million dollars) is now the highest-grossing domestic film in Mexican history; El Crimen del Padre Amaro is Mexico’s Oscar candidate for Best Foreign Film.
The film begins modestly enough with Amaro, fresh from the seminary, sitting on a bus headed into provincial Mexico. Suddenly, the bus is held up at gunpoint and the passengers are robbed. The man sitting next to the priest had just sold his land and was about to move to town to enter into business with his son; now he’s lost all his life savings. When the bus finally reaches the next town, Amaro arises and hands the man a roll of bills to help him on his way.
As he begins his tenure in the small yet influential parish Amaro seems to be an idealist. But through his growing involvement in community life, he starts to take advantage of his priestly position. When a muckraking journalist exposes two parish priests for dubious relationships with a drug kingpin and left-wing guerrillas, the bishop asks Amaro to engage in spin control. The younger priest carries out his assignment and protects the Church’s integrity by forcing the newspaper to fire the reporter. Soon, however, he himself becomes mired in turmoil; he breaks his vow of celibacy by beginning an affair with Amelia, a seemingly devout parishioner who had been dating the journalist before he publicized the Church’s dirty dealings.
Amaro’s good looks and Amelia’s religiosity lead to a relationship whose passion is sometimes acted out in the confessional. (They steal their first kiss in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. “You’re lovelier than the Virgin herself,” Amaro later tells his young lover, as he covers her naked body in the Virgin’s cloak.) When Amelia becomes pregnant, he refuses to resign his priesthood, hoping to forestall problems by paying for a clandestine abortion. Instead, she hemorrhages uncontrollably and dies as Amaro tries to take her to a hospital. By the end of the film, the no longer idealistic young man is all steely resolve as he papers over his hypocrisy and presides over his lover’s funeral. Meanwhile, his gullible parishioners remain convinced that Amelia was carrying the journalist’s baby.
From the opening sequence to the denouement, the cinematic version of Padre Amaro bears little resemblance to the original novel. While Eça went to great lengths to portray a priest who exploits his faith and his parishioners’ trust as he profits from ill-gotten gains, Carrera and Leñero create a more sympathetic character ably realized by García Bernal; their Padre Amaro is caught in a web not entirely of his own design. He is as much a victim of the Church’s unbending rules as he is of his own unethical choices. And yet it is striking to see how strongly issues raised in nineteenth-century Portugal resonate for twenty-first century Mexico. Both the novel and the film address the distance between the way the Church wants people to practice their faith and how they observe their spiritual obligations. Neither the senior parish priest, Padre Benito (Sancho Gracia) nor Padre Amaro observes their vows of chastity. Long before his affair with Amelia, when Amaro first meets his fellow priests, he argues that the Church could improve priestly life by permitting marriage. His colleagues rebuff him, saying that the Church will never allow priests to marry. (Rome will have a Mexican Pope before it embarks on such significant reform, he is told.)
Perhaps it is that feeling of powerlessness in the face of Catholic tradition that Carrera and Leñero try so desperately to illuminate. Unfortunately, despite strong performances from the cast, their efforts are ultimately undermined by the film’s emotion-provoking rhetoric. Carrera and Leñero may have succeeded in angering the Father Juliáns of the world, but in failing to examine the gray areas of Mexican religiosity they frittered away their the chance to create a film that is both profound and truly thought-provoking.
Patrick Timmons is a history doctoral candidate at UT-Austin where he studies the death penalty in nineteenth-century Mexico.