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THE CRIME OF FATHER AMARO

Holy Hypocrisy

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You'd think that provincial Mexico could dangle only so many temptations in front of a Catholic priest. But in the somberly entertaining, hard-nosed soap opera The Crime of Father Amaro, it seems a young curate suffers most of them -- and falls rather short of the example of Jesus conferencing with Satan on the mountain.

Arriving in the town of Los Reyes as the favorite of the bishop, handsome Father Amaro (Gael García Bernal) is a handpicked golden boy in need of a few years of burnishing in a humble parish. But when a newspaper exposes shady financial dealings by the old head priest, Father Benito, it presages an ill-fated series of events including Amaro's affair with Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancón), a pious, smooth-skinned catechism teacher who's neither terribly discreet nor yet past her teens.

Though set in contemporary Mexico, The Crime of Father Amaro is based on an 1875 novel, and director Carlos Carrera gives it a Dickensian breadth of story and character; you'll remember Dionisia, a nutty but gimlet-eyed old parishioner who saves communion wafers to feed to her cat. The cinematography is attractive and Carrera's direction is smart, though the film's a bit long. The acting, especially by Y tu mama también star Bernal, is terse and effective.

But The Crime of Father Amaro is most effective as an indictment of the Mexican power structure. At the summit is the plump, complacent bishop who pushes around the mayor and the press. Near the top is the drug lord, living in nouveau riche splendor not far from the horse-carts of Los Reyes, and trading funds for a badly needed new hospital in exchange for ministerial favors from the willing Father Benito. Close to the bottom are naïaut;ve, impulsive Amelia; her passive-aggressive mother, who's in a longstanding affair with Benito; and Amelia's ex-boyfriend, Ruben, the young journalist who exposes Benito. Lowest of all are the liberation-theologist priest Father Natalio and the mountain peasants, generally regarded as leftist guerrillas, among whom he lives and works in defiance of the bishop.

In the middle is Amaro himself -- an intriguing creation. Because he's the hero, and young, deferential and good-looking, we're inclined to sympathize. But he's also kind of a cipher, and Carrera gradually reveals the corruption around Amaro and how he slips into it like a warm bath, seamlessly becoming hatchet man, false friend, faithless lover, autocrat. We don't learn why he's so blandly spineless and greedy; maybe he buys Benito's novel version of transubstantiation, in which building a hospital with a drug kingpin's money turns bad pesos good.

Though he performs many bad acts, Amaro is charged by the film's title with just one crime; possibly it's an overweening sense of entitlement. In any case, the film pointedly inverts Oscar Wilde's dictum about fiction being where the good end well and the bad badly. In Spanish, with subtitles. * * *

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