The Catholic Church has a long history of entangling itself in sex scandals, despite constant attempts from within the organization to maintain its long-held status as a paragon of virtue. Church officials have often pointed to the forced celibacy of their priests as evidence of their commitment to the Catholic faith and ethical principles, though this logic is incredibly archaic and, by contemporary thinking, counterintuitive. Any institution, religious or otherwise, that demands celibacy of its members is asking for trouble, as demonstrated by the numerous child molestation and sexual harassment scandals over the years. Nonetheless, the Church has remained vigilant in its quest to be the final word in any and all religious, ethical, and even political matters. Given its long-reach and influence, this leaves detractors little room for effective opposition; but naturally, this is where filmmakers step in. While they have little power to effect real political change (for the most part), they do have the capacity to have an incredible cultural impact, and their sphere of influence is not limited to just those of one particular faith, nationality, or even era.
The Crime of Father Amaro (Spanish Title: El Crimen del Padre Amaro) is a Mexican-Spanish coproduction that sheds light on the hypocrisies of the Catholic Church, particularly as it relates to forced celibacy and a power structure that breeds corruption, as well as the abandonment of certain espoused beliefs. The film centers on the titular Father Amaro (Gael García Bernal), a young priest who has just arrived in the fictional town of Los Reyes to begin his spiritual work. He is an underling of Father Benito (Sancho Gracia), a priest who, despite his strict enforcement of Church policies, carries on an affair with a local restaurant owner while also accepting money from local drug lords to fund the construction of a hospital. Meanwhile, Amaro begins an affair with a 16 year old congregant, Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancón), who speaks to him about her sexuality during confessional. Both he and Amelia seek to justify their lust, though it seems irreconcilable with their outward declarations of faith and obedience.
From a technical standpoint, The Crime of Father Amaro is no masterpiece. The paltry budget limits the film to a degree, and there are times when it plays more like a telenovela, both in its editing and overall tone, than a feature-length film. Though Bernal is an exceptional actor, some of the ancillary performances leave something to be desired. Director Carlos Carrera attempts to amplify the drama through music and overly-long, meaningful closeups, and these kind of stylistic choices actually do the film a disservice. With a narrative that pulls no punches in its denunciation of the Catholic Church and the hypocrisies therein, it seems unnecessary and rather lazy to rely on tired film practices to elicit more emotion from the audience.
In spite of the uneven style, the story is brilliant. At first glance it seems as though the script is overloaded with scattershot criticisms; its as if the filmmakers wanted to squeeze every critical headline that has ever been aimed at the Church into one story, but it actually feels much more natural in practice. The characters are believable, functioning as more than just archetypes for the sake of painting the Church in a negative light. Father Amaro is a particularly intriguing person, as he is not an entirely sympathetic character. On the one hand, he is at the mercy of an altogether corrupt and dangerous institution, which does not seem to care for the intricacies of the human experience, only the tradition of upholding religious dogma; but on the other hand, he treats Amelia very poorly and, taking a page from the Church’s playbook, espouses certain beliefs and virtues publicly, but makes very questionable and selfish choices behind closed doors. We never quite know how to feel about him, but his plight is still one that evokes sympathy, as he, and the rest of the characters, are merely pawns in a much larger game of religious tyranny.
The Crime of Father Amaro works very well as a critique of the Catholic Church; it is ultimately a very interesting and melancholic tale about the damage organized religion has the power to inflict, and the lies we are willing to tell ourselves in order to sleep at night.
Rating: ★★★½ out of 5
The Crime of Father Amaro is available to rent or purchase via Amazon here.