Mexican helmer Luiz Urquiza’s debut feature, “Perfect Obedience,” examines the pedophilic relationship between the spiritual leader of a Catholic seminary and the comely, naive young lad he selects as his newest disciple. Attempting both to validate the affair from the young seminarian’s p.o.v. and to condemn the hypocrisy of the corrupt priest, the film’s conflicting agendas wind up canceling each other out in an uneasy amalgam of pious devotion and heavy breathing. This winner of the top prize at Montreal has proven hugely popular at home, its explosive subject matter, powerful thesping and elegant lensing elevating what might otherwise be described as tasteful salaciousness.
The fictional Father Angel de la Cruz (Juan Manuel Bernal) is based on Legion of Christ founder Marcial Maciel, whose long history of child abuse was addressed only in 2006 and publicly acknowledged in 2009. But Urquiza chooses to structure his film through the largely uncomprehending, wondering eyes of 13-year-old Julian (Sebastian Aguirre Boeda), who travels from the arms of his loving pastoral family into the hallowed halls of the seminary, its austere opulence masking a hotbed of homosexuality. Singling out the attractive boy as his intimate disciple, installing him in his palatial private quarters and redubbing him Sacramento Santos, Father Angel begins Julian’s instruction into the mysteries of “perfect obedience,” whose cardinal rule is: Never question a superior’s actions.
Urquiza stresses the fundamental prepubescent heterosexuality of the young seminarians, who have no complicity whatsoever in the dubious practices going on around them, even when they are the victims. The same certainly cannot be said of the community of priests, exchanging knowing glances and leeringly encouraging sexual details in confession, turning disappointed when the boys’ fantasies feature women instead of men.
No one could accuse Urquiza of subtlety, though he is careful to avoid any graphic depiction or physical manifestation of pedophilia. But Father Angel’s swooning breathlessness as he washes Julian’s feet in a church ritual speaks volumes. In addition to his abuse of children, Angel’s proclivities extend to whores and heroin; should anyone miss the diabolical point, the priest is shown drunkenly dancing to the strains of “Sympathy for the Devil.”
Young Boeda succeeds admirably in casting his beatific good looks in a postcard-perfect saintly light, and Alejandro de Hoyos, as Angel’s former acolyte, brings some much-needed complexity and resonance into the mix. But the film belongs to Bernal as he effortlessly extends his evangelical charisma to encompass the most outrageous of perversions.
Serguei Saldivar Tanaka’s lensing heightens the contrast between the dignified beauty of the seminary compound and the increasingly unholy activities it harbors.