Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

Forum locked This topic is locked, you cannot edit posts or make further replies.  [ 1 post ] 
Author Message
PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:05 pm 
Site Admin

Joined: Sat Mar 08, 2003 1:50 pm
Posts: 4448
Location: California/NYC

Alienation Effect

El Crimen del Padre Amaro is a film whose impact in Mexico a norteamericano like me can only imagine -- even though when I saw it in Berkeley a lot of the audience members were Latino. This is a powerful picture of the Catholic church, with a corrupt bishop who's little different from a drug lord, a parish priest who's been having an affair with an older woman and laundering the narcos' money to build a hospital, a young muckraking reporter who gets railroaded out of town, and at the center of it all a young priest who deflowers an innocent young over-religious virgin girl and prods her to get an abortion that leads to her death -- and gets away with it. And they all do. They all get away with it.

EL CRIMEN DEL PADRE AMARO seems superficially conventional and ordinary but in fact it's not so conventional or ordinary as all that. True, it's simple and schematic, beginning with big close-ups of the faces of the principals, neatly outlined scenes, music (nice music, though) that comes in loudly at key points. The elements of the story are laid out bluntly enough: there's something generic about the cynical mayor, the saintly country priest who helps the campesinos fight the narcos and the state police and gets accused of supporting guerrillas and finally excommunicated for not towing the line, the fourth priest who's a fat man whose whole joy is eating and drinking. The plot is boldly developed. Nothing is ambiguous.

But to begin with it's really all much too well done to call conventional, and it stars the biggest young actor in Mexico, the 24-year-old Gael García Bernal, who has just appeared in the two most powerful and brilliant Mexican movies of recent years, AMORES PERROS (2000) and Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN (2001). Bernal's presence alone commands a degree of attention for the movie that is not ordinary or conventional.

The plot of EL CRIMEN DEL PADRE AMARO recalls somewhat the classic polarities of the Italian Giovanni Guareschi's 1950's 'Don Camillo' books (celebrated in a Fernandel film and four sequels 1951-65) - the parish priest, the communist mayor, the pious old ladies, the plotters and busybodies, the everyday people subject to life's common temptations, greed, love, and lust. But this story, though based on a 19th century Portuguese novel by Eça de Queirós, has been transformed by Mexican director Carlos Carrera (himself, like Bernal, a meteoric young talent in Mexico) into a more serious and hard edged depiction of the very latest Latin American issues - narcos and municipios preying on campesinos, widespread ecclesiastical and secular corruption, media repression. Guareschi's peccadillos have been upgraded to full-fledged mortal sins and civil and personal disasters -- ruined lives, blackmail, wrongful deaths, murders and assassinations.

Bernal, who plays Padre Amaro, the newly anointed priest whose arrival in town starts the action, was notable in Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN and AMORES PERROS for a charming smile and an infectious giggle that could instantly turn into over-the-top hilarity. The source of his strong screen presence seemed to be the way he radiated a sense of wild, good-natured fun, and he and his real-life friend Diego Luna played off each other magically in Y TU MAMÁ. This time there's no sidekick and no hilarity, only a honeyed look of sweetness and a superficially cooperative manner that conceals a steel will, an ability to maintain a deadpan mask of goodness while executing the pragmatic bishop's most draconian orders and simultaneously covering his own ass. Though his flesh is weak when it comes to the young virgin he deflowers, Padre Amaro's 'vocation' takes precedence over his love affair. He knows how to play the system. We see that he'll go far. He's an agile survivor who never hesitates: in this movie, nobody does. This is a story about how things work, not about doubts. Lots of wrongs get done, and everybody gets away with it -- except for the poor young girl.

What is least conventional about this superficially conventional film is that there's no catharsis offered, no emotional purgation, no satisfying reward or punishment or two-handkerchief ending. In the final scene Padre Amaro is leading a service in honor of the young woman whose death he has just caused. He seems eloquent, authoritative, convincing. His angelic young face, which reveals nothing of his true nature as he conducts the service, comes to haunt you, because there's really from start to finish nothing to like about him other than his soft looks and ingratiating manner. This 'padrecito' is a bastard, a cabrón, an asshole. EL CRIMEN is a movie with a totally unsympathetic protagonist, one you can't identify with for a minute. No catharsis there -- unless you're so cynical that to see hypocrisy triumph leaves you feeling satisfied.

EL CRIMEN DEL PADRE AMARO creates the 'Alienation Effect' (Verfremdungseffekt) the great German playwright Bertolt Brecht specialized in - the quality of giving the audience nothing gratifying to identify with and thus forcing its members to think hard about the subject the play (or in this case movie) presents to us. Brecht's characters and plots are highly schematic and neatly outlined too, like the plot of EL CRIMEN. We're forced to think more than anything not about the individuals, the manipulated and Machiavellian young Padre Amaro, his girlfriend, the various schematically clear-cut characters, but above all about the hypocrisy of the Mexican government and the Catholic church and the evil system that prevails. A kind of shock value is created when we see Dionisia feed stolen communion wafers to her cat, and when Padre Amaro recites the Song of Songs as he deflowers his pious young girlfriend and dresses her naked body in the robe of the virgin. It's true there are a few moments of strong sympathy along the way, the most powerful one being when Padre Amaro delivers the excommunication fax to the saintly campesino priest Padre Natalio. Amaro knows Natalio is gold and he is dross, and we weep for him, but when Amaro stands high in the church celebrating with the broken Padre Benito in a wheelchair turning away from him, we too turn away from him with a sense of distaste.

Bernal lives up to expectations. Equally strong in their roles are Ana Claudia Talancón as Amelia, Amaro's victim lover, Sancho Gracia as the older parish priest, Padre Benito, Damian Alcázar as the radiantly committed Padre Natalio, and Luisa Huertas as the crazy and corrupt old fanatic, Dionisia, who leads Amaro to the abortion clinic and along the way provides some shrill comic relief.

Sure, this movie is conventional - and even lurid -- in many ways, and thereby well designed to draw in the general public in Mexico and everywhere else. IL CRIMEN DEL PADRE AMARO is a vivid depiction of the corruption of the Catholic clergy and the corruptibility, victimization and confusion of the general Mexican populace. It's enormously controversial and thought provoking coming from a Catholic country, and there's no wonder it's been a huge box office hit in Mexico. It has bite and it's exceptionally well made. It would be foolish not to recognize it as one of the more notable movies of 2002.

November 26, 2002

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

Display posts from previous:  Sort by  
Forum locked This topic is locked, you cannot edit posts or make further replies.  [ 1 post ] 

All times are UTC - 8 hours

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 10 guests

You cannot post new topics in this forum
You cannot reply to topics in this forum
You cannot edit your posts in this forum
You cannot delete your posts in this forum
You cannot post attachments in this forum

Search for:
Jump to:  
Powered by phpBB® Forum Software © phpBB Group