Monday, February 03, 2003

Crimes and Misdemeanors -- Religious and Aesthetic

You don’t have to be Catholic, or even one who keeps up with current scandal, to find El Crimen del Padre Amaro a virulently anti-Catholic film; powerful, well-acted, moving, but also prejudiced and somewhat hateful, with a deliberate calculation to shock the faithful.

Like Luis Bunuel before him, director Carlos Carrera has a taste for staging mise en scene of somewhat ornate blasphemy, juxtaposing objects in a way meant to agitate and provoke. Scene: A somewhat insane parishioner has a communal wafer placed on her tongue; instead of eating it, she puts it in her purse, takes it home and feeds it to her sick cat. Scene: a girl in confession admits to thinking about Jesus when she masturbates. Scene: the priest of the title has sex with the same young girl, then shrouds her naked body in a cloth made for a statue of the Holy Virgin.

I know nothing about Carrera or screenwriter Vicente Leñero, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn they are the products of a Catholic education and the film is a purgative – as L’Age d’Or no doubt was for Bunuel. It's this seething anger that threatens to throw the film off-balance, almost from the beginning.

In books and movies of this sort, troubled religious figures often go from naive innocence to cynical experience; they arrive at a parish or church full of good intentions, see wrongdoing, and find either that they are powerless to overcome it or are affrected by its pernicious influence. The young Father Amaro (Gael García Bernal) of Carrera's film, on the other hand, has his illusions shattered from the start, and becomes a hypocrite without all that much of a struggle. We are not long into the film before we discover that Father Amaro's superior is having an affair with a local widow, and that he is involved in money laundering for the local drug lord in hopes of financing a new clinic. Father Amaro not only proves a steady help in this regard, but he also takes advantage of a young girl who is in love with him -- in both cases, almost without a thought.

The point of view is clear -- the church denies its priests a passionate existence, and as a result forces them to hurt others: the girl becomes pregnant and Father Amaro seeks out the services of a backstreet abortionist -- the result of which gives the film a downbeat ending where the irony is all too easily earned. Father Amaro learns nothing from his sins, apparently because he's a full-fledged member of a brutal, corrupting, castrating institution that only turns its adherents into misshapen cretins.

In fairness, the film does make a passing attempt at objectivity; contrasting the main story of a young priest who prospers by hypocrisy, a subplot involves the struggle of a good priest who preaches liberation theology and tries to protect his peasant parishioners from the local drug lords. But that doesn't amount to much more than an attempt to achieve balance by ideological means, since the only good priest in the movie is a staunchly liberal one. In other words, this is a film that tips the balance in the director's own favored direction, giving it a rank whiff of smugness.

P.S. Another Bunuel note. The corrupt mayor in the film is played by Pedro Armendariz, Jr.; his father was a popular leading man in Mexico, perhaps best known here for the title role in Bunuel's El Bruto.

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