The Crime of Padre Amaro (2002)

The Crime of Padre Amaro is a very famous Mexican film, and one of the most successful domestic films at the Mexican box office ever. It was the Catholic Church that ensured that success. By trying to suppress the film and agitating against its release, the church provided the film with an unimaginable amount of free publicity. An endless stream of people went into the cinemas to see what al the fuss was about. And the controversy also ensured that the film gained a significant international profile, making it possibly the internationally best-known film on this blog. The Crime of Padre Amaro was nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for best foreign language film.

The film is based on an 1875 Portuguese novel by José Maria de Eça de Queiróz. But with a change in time and place probably comes a change in social issues, and so I assume that there is no close resemblance between the novel and the film.

 

The Crime of Padre Amaro opens with a symbolic scene that illustrates how much ordinary people in Mexico suffer under the persistent levels of crime. It foreshadows some of the corruption and violence that we will meet later in the film, but it also shows us the naïve and young Amaro as a very compassionate man.

Early scenes of the film paint an encompassing picture of small town life, and while some of the exposition is slightly clunky, the film introduces its main characters rather nicely in those scenes. These early scenes also set a visual mark: the church is stuffed full of statues and relics, and resembles a giant storage locker housing a cabinet of curiosities. That impression is echoed and amplified later when we see the private chapel of the local witch Dionisia, an absurd and “kitsch” chamber of horrors. In this old-school, rural Catholic church deeply embedded in folk religion and superstition it is quite fitting that Dionisia is the first person Amaro encounters as he enters the church. Dionisia and her circle represent a Catholicism alien to the university-educated Amaro: an absurd, violent and vindictive religion full of superstition and pagan rituals.

But it is not so much the old witch that will shake the foundations of Amaro’s beliefs. Rather it is the intricate system of hypocrisy and corruption that he soon discovers in the community and in the parish.

If the film has so far presented a very neat package of characters and conflicts, it now becomes muddled. It seems to me that the film tries to tackle too many issues at once. Amongst them is a crass patriarchy (unbridled and unchallenged); the divide between enlightenment and folk religion; local corruption; the drugs trade; liberation theology; celibacy. These are too many topics, and so you feel like there is never enough time to explore them in a film that – ironically – feels too long (it runs for 115 minutes). When the film tries to focus on some of the topics it has raised it neglects others by necessity, and one wonders why they have been introduced in the first place.

Also contributing to the feeling of things getting “muddled” is the changing presentation of Padre Amaro. Halfway through the film he is no longer presented as the naïve young priest with high ideals and a spotless character. Instead, we see before us a man with a long list of flaws. That is a valid artistic decision and not a problem in itself, but that change does not come organically. In a way, this change is a dystopian perversion of a coming-of-age story – but I never felt I actually witnessed the character development of Amaro on screen, and that is a clear directing and editing problem.

It also presents a difficulty to me, since it is through Amaro’s eyes that we witness all that we are introduced to in the beginning of the film: the community, the people, the church, etc. When we lose him as a character we can identify with (not because he has flaws, but because he stops being a believable character), then the film’s world loses a good deal of its accessibility.

 

Because of its sheer length and especially because of the shift in focus and the shift in the presentation of Padre Amaro, the film appears like two stories in one. The first half of the film tells us how the young Amaro witnesses the shortcomings of his church; the second story tells us of Amaro’s failings and corruptibility. These two halves of the film could have easily been linked, but the filmmakers failed to do that. The link would have needed to come through a convincing and organic character development in Amaro, and the film never gives the character the time and space to achieve that.

 

The acting is good throughout the film. But some characters are only in the film for one or two scenes; and some play a crucial role in the first half of the film only to vanish completely during the second half. As with the social issues, it seems to me that there were more supporting characters in this film than director Carlos Carrera could do justice to.

Good supporting performances are given by Gaston Meló, Angélica Aragón, Luisa Huertas and the great Damián Alcázar, amongst others. Blanca Loaria gives an outstanding performance as a crippled and mentally disabled young woman.

Amongst the key characters, the late Sancho Gracia gives one of the best performances as Padre Benito. Gael García Bernal gives a good performance in the title role, but as I said, I do believe that his character was not given enough room for us to be able to follow his character development. Likewise, I believe that there are some directing problems in the character of Amelia: Ana Claudia Talancón gives an outstanding performance, and it is a joy to watch her in the role, but her Amelia appears too mature, too independent. It is clearly her who seduces Amaro, but I think we are meant to believe that she is being led and manipulated by him? So, for me, there seems to be a problem in the directing, or possibly the writing. Or maybe Talancón was simply the wrong casting choice, and the filmmakers should have gone for someone younger, someone appearing more vulnerable?

 

So, all in all, with too many topics and too many characters to handle, the film (which at its core is nothing more than a tragedy about a forbidden love) is probably way too ambitious. The script by Vicente Leñero would have needed more revision and some serious pruning before filming, as I believe the problem of the story being too extensive was no longer solvable by the time the editing started.

Having too many topics the film at times suffers from a lack of focus and becomes too long. Add to that two lead characters who do not convince (not because of the acting), and you have a film that in spite of its important subject matters, its ambition and its many strengths has to be called adequate rather than outstanding. There is a reason why this film, despite its many nominations, has never won a notable award outside of Mexico. And since its quality is rather mixed, it could well be argued that the film, as it stands, would not have had nearly the success or the global reputation had it not been for the attempts by religious groups to ban it; proving once again that any such attempt will only have the opposite effect.

I’d rate this film at 6.5 out of 10, mostly for the quality acting and for the film’s achievements in providing a suitable setting and atmosphere.

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