True confessions

Padre Amaro a lurid critique of Catholicism

The religious melodrama El Crimen de Padre Amaro arrives with the subtlety of a brick thrown through a church window. Translated as The Crime of Father Amaro, its portrayal of priestly misconduct has been denounced by the Catholic League and stirred up enough controversy to become one of the most lucrative releases in its native Mexico.

Padre's eagerness to provoke seizes your interest, but at every opportunity, director Carlos Carrera and writer Vicente Lenero take the low road, providing a sensational, superficial portrayal of spiritual matters.

El Crimen de Padre Amaro is based on a novel of the same name written in 1875 and updated to present-day Mexico. Young Father Amaro (Gael Garc'a Bernal) takes the bus to the town of Los Reyes, his new parish, and Carrera quickly establishes that we're entering Godless territory. The bus is stopped for literally an act of highway robbery in a frighteningly unexpected scene.

Los Reyes itself looks pleasant, but its sleepy surfaces conceal a moral testing ground. The church itself is managed by tightly wound Father Benito (Sancho Gracia), who sneers upon learning of Amaro's opposition to the vow of celibacy. Benito is a public scold but a private hypocrite. Not only is he the go-between for a money-laundering drug lord and an ambitious new medical center, he's having a long- term affair with a woman who runs a neighboring restaurant.

The woman's virginal 16-year-old daughter Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancón) teaches catechisms, and seems to share her mother's taste in men. Sexual tension builds between Amelia and Amaro in the familiar cinematic way: During a tour of a construction site, Amelia stumbles and Amaro gallantly catches her. And it builds even more in confession when she admits to touching herself — while thinking about Jesus.

Amaro is tempted by more than the pleasures of the flesh. A local newspaper runs an expose of Benito's criminal connections, and Amaro doesn't hesitate to write the rebuttal. For the young priest, it's not an act of blind faith, but his first taste of power, and he threatens to use church connections to pull the paper's advertising if his demands aren't met.

Padre takes an admirably expansive view of the church's presence in all strata of Mexican society. The drug dealer has a hacienda worthy of the Corleones, and graft is so commonplace that the mayor's wife handles payments with the aplomb of arranging a bake sale. But the film takes lurid turns whenever possible.

When Amaro seeks a private room to have trysts with Amelia, his cover story is that he's preparing her to enter a convent. The full-lipped Bernal also starred in Y Tu Mama Tambien, and he and Talancón make an extremely attractive couple. But they don't seem challenged to dig very deeply into their roles, so Amaro comes across as simply callow, and Amelia's personality may amount to no more than a fetish for clerical collars.

Padre touches on similar themes as the British film Priest, in which a young Father struggled to reconcile his religious convictions and his homosexuality. But soul-searching is absent from Padre, and Amaro breaks commandments with little hesitation. The film's only true holy man is Father Natalio (Damian Alcazar), who's so saintly he ministers to struggling rural families despite the threat of excommunication.

A story that focused on Father Natalio's struggles may have addressed some of the real challenges of religious life, like a Graham Greene novel. El Crimen de Padre Amaro only amounts to a heavy-handed critique of Catholicism. As Amaro gets further into ethical quagmire, Carrera repeatedly pans over to rest on mournful, disapproving statues of the Virgin or Christ. What would Jesus do, indeed?