Already a box office sensation in Mexico -- opening weekend take last month tripled that of prior home-turf champ "Y tu mama tambien," its profile boosted by official church condemnation -- "The Crime of Father Amaro" leaves no clerical skeleton closeted in transplanting a scandalous 1875 novel to a contempo setting.

Already a box office sensation in Mexico — opening weekend take last month tripled that of prior home-turf champ “Y tu mama tambien,” its profile boosted by official church condemnation — “The Crime of Father Amaro” leaves no clerical skeleton closeted in transplanting a scandalous 1875 novel to a contempo setting. Respectably crafted to avoid lurid excess, feature is nonetheless a bit potboilerish in its pileup of sexy, violent, duplicitous circumstances that plague the consciences of latter-day clergymen. Fact that pic plays at times like a telenovela with arthouse aspirations won’t phase Spanish-speaking global auds for whom Catholicism and corruption make an endlessly fascinating match. But crossover to other auds will be more muted, given likelihood of just-middling critical support.

Blessed with an angelic countenance that belies his considerable ambition, newly ordained Father Amaro (Gael Garcia Bernal of “Y tu mama”) is already fast-tracked for a lofty career by the diocese’s bishop (Ernesto Gomez Cruz), but first must pay some dues in the field. He’s assigned to mid-sized Los Reyes, a remote town whose impressive cathedral is the longtime turf of Father Benito (Sancho Gracia).

Latter carries on a secret affair with local restaurateur Sanjuanera (Angelica Aragon) and gladly launders money for the area’s drug lord — believing the latter to be an excusable necessary evil, since kingpin’s generous donations fund construction of an elaborate local hospital/rest home/orphanage for the church. “It’s bad money that turns good,” he rationalizes.

Watchful Amaro views these moral compromises with disdain — though he admits to believing the church would “avoid a lot of trouble” if priestly celibacy were optional. But he’s soon wading into questionable waters himself, most notably by commencing romance with piously star-struck beauty Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancon), Sanjuanera’s barely adult daughter. She promptly drops her extant boyfriend, aspiring journalist Ruben (Andreas Montiel). Latter retaliates by unearthing a series of clerical scandals, starting with one photo that exposes Father Benito’s organized crime connection.

Resulting public outcry brings down the bishop’s wrath. Benito tries to save his own neck by scapegoating Father Natalio (Damian Alcazar), whose genuinely selfless outreach to peasants in the mountains has brought accusations of consorting with guerillas.

Meanwhile, Amaro’s increasingly Machiavellian maneuvers hit a wall when Amelia announces she’s pregnant. Climax brings back-alley abortion into a narrative agenda already sin-laden with sex, alcohol, blackmail, murder, exploitation of the mentally ill, and plain old fibbing.

Carlos Carrera’s direction and Vicente Lenero’s screenplay (drawn from the 19th-century literary original by Portuguese author Jose Maria Eca de Queiroz) take a straight-faced, reasonably credible approach to tale’s rather tawdry clutter. Ironies and hypocrisies are occasionally laid out in heavy-handed fashion. While it often borders on salacious soap opera, “Crime” does sport enough restraint and conviction to bypass outright sensationalism. Large cast of vividly sketched support characters fill out the compact two-hour progress.

Rising star Bernal is perhaps a tad too passive here, though his coolness does suggest a budding amorality that story’s more definite surrounding figures can read as they like — allowing Amaro to commit his “crimes” unsuspected until the end. Cast is solid, resisting potential for ham stereotyping.

Multinationally funded production is well-mounted if not particularly large-scaled, directed with more efficiency than personal style by Carrera. Occasional tacky synth sounds in Rosino Serrano’s score are only design misstep; 35mm print unspooled in Toronto looked faintly like a transfer from HD vid.

The Crime of Father Amaro

Mexico-Spain-Argentina-France

Production

An Alameda Films, BluFilms, Foprocine, Gob. Del Edo de Veracruz-Llave production in association with Imcine, Wanda Vision, Artcam and Cinecolor. Produced by Alfredo Ripstein, Daniel Birman Ripstein. Executive producer, Laura Imperiale. Co-producer, Jose Maria Morales. Directed by Carlos Carrera. Screenplay, Vicente Lenero, adapted from the novel by Jose Maria Eca de Queiroz.

Crew

Camera (color), Guillermo Granillo; editor, Oscar Figueroa; music, Rosino Serrano; production designer, Carmen Gimenez Cacho; costume designer, Mariestela Fernandez; sound designer (Dolby Digital), Nerio Barberis; assistant director, Miguel Lima; casting, Sandra Leon Becker. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 11, 2002. Running time: 118 MIN.

With

Father Amaro - Gael Garcia Bernal Father Benito - Sancho Gracia Amelia - Ana Claudia Talancon Father Natalio - Damian Alcazar Sanjuanera - Angelica Aragon Dionisia - Luisa Huertas Bishop - Ernesto Gomez Cruz Mayor - Pedro Armendariz Martin - Gaston Melo Amparito - Veronica Langer Father Mauro - Jorge Zarate Ruben - Andres Montiel
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