Whoever called The Crime of Padre Almaro “one of the most controversial films ever made” doesn’t get out much. Yes, it can truly be said that the film is no valentine to the Catholic church—though its portrayal of a couple of priests and their fondness for lady friends is weak tea compared to things that have been in the news lately, and its major indictments of the religion seem less concerned with the flesh than with the politics of the church.
In any case, there have certainly been many far-harsher indictments of the church than this. (Ken Russell’s The Devils comes immediately to mind, since Padre Amaro shares with Russell’s film a mildly comic confessional scene in which a lady penitent confesses rather more than her sins.) But setting the controversy to one side, what we’re left with is a pretty good movie that thinks it’s better than it is. Actually, parts of Padre Amaro really are that good, and all of it might have been had those responsible for bringing Portuguese writer Eca de Queiros’ 1875 novel to the screen settled on exactly what movie they were making.
Is it a satire on Catholicism a la Luis Bunuel? Director Carlos Carrera frequently cuts to religious paintings and statues in a manner that suggests as much. (How else are you meant to take jumps from some bit of dubious theological pragmatism to the image of a downcast saint ,or of Christ with his eyes looking heavenward in apparent despair?) The film’s Bunuelian aspects don’t stop there, since Padre Amaro includes a plot contrivance (there’s no other word for this pointless subplot) involving a character (Blanca Loaria) who does nothing other than ramble incoherently and writhe on a bed, despite efforts at exorcism, understanding and medical intervention. Similarly, the more pivotal character of Dionisia (Luisa Huertas)—a bizarre old woman who steals consecrated wafers to doctor her cats, knows everyone’s secrets and seems to be in on everything—is worthy of Bunuel at his most outrageous.
Unfortunately, these aspects of the film are largely subservient to a plot line that can only be described as plain old Lux: For all its oddities and deliberate controversy, Padre Amaro is at bottom a very melodramatic soap opera. It’s not a bad one—except perhaps in terms of predictability—but it’s pretty much 99 and 44/100ths pure.
The romantic aspects of the film—the longstanding affair of the Rev. Benito (Sancho Grazia) with a local restaurant owner (Angelica Aragon) and the new affair of the Rev. Amaro (Gael Garcia Bernal) with the restaurateur’s daughter, Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancon)—are just that: romantic. They aren’t really designed as arguments against celibacy in the priesthood; they’re merely star-crossed love stories. Even when Padre Amaro flirts with the heretical—the business of Amaro draping Amelia and himself in the Virgin Mary’s cloak during a lovers’ tryst—it’s more about the doomed romance than anything. Whatever else this aspect of the film may be, it most certainly is not an expose of libidinous priests running wild.
As I noted earlier, the movie’s real focus is on a different kind of corruption—of an altogether pragmatic church hierarchy that turns a blind eye to many things in order to serve a vaguely reasoned greater good. Padre Amaro’s central theme is the absorption of Amaro into the bureaucracy of the church. His crime is ultimately less carnal—at least in the context of the film—than it is spiritual. He arrives on the scene as a well-meaning young priest sent by the bishop (Ernest Gomez Cruz) ostensibly to help out an aging man of the cloth. Even at this point, however, Amaro isn’t quite what he seems, since he’s less a helper than an unannounced supervisor (yes, it does smack of Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald in Going My Way). But his intentions are never in question.
An early scene shows Amaro’s innate charity and goodness when he gives a fellow passenger on a Greyhound bus with him some money to help ease that which his companion lost in a holdup. But as the story progresses, Amaro finds his idealism shifting more and more toward the expedient. When a newspaper uncovers scandal involving Benito’s connections to a drug lord and money laundering, Amaro writes, at the behest of the bishop, a quick whitewash job to counter the charges. At first, this is something he seems loath to do, but when the editor of the paper waffles, Amaro suddenly finds himself playing political hardball and blackmails the man into submission. From that point on, such things become easier for him, and Amaro becomes ever more hardened to worldly realities—and not always for the “greater good.” Quite often, his decisions are simply for personal gain or self-preservation. These are his true crimes, yet they are largely offenses of reality.
The film quickly establishes its world as one where idealism is punished. The one priest who stands up to the bishop and the corruption that surrounds him is excommunicated. The crusading journalist—whose expose was written at the urging of his editor—finds himself out of a job. Those who will not or cannot play the game are destroyed. And on this level, the film scores quite nicely, not in the least because of the subtle performance of Gael Garcia Bernal, who made his mark in Y Tu Mama Tambien. Its failure lies in its tendency to overcomplicate itself with extraneous characters, subplots and Bunuelian digressions. Even so, it’s a good film and a worthy one. It just isn’t the daringly powerful one it pretends to be.