“The body of our Lord,” says the aptly named Dionisia (Luisa Huertas), as she feeds a communion wafer to a black cat under a homemade shrine. In El Crimen del Padre Amaro, Carlos Carrera and screenwriter Vicente Leñero use melodrama to illustrate the complexities of this ritual and concept, that “body and soul are one essence.” Or, put another way, the Catholic Church and its representatives are not immune from earthly corruption and desire.
The message couldn’t be more timely, though the source material for Amaro predates the current wave of priestly scandals. Adapted from an 1875 novel by acclaimed Portuguese author José María Eça de Queiróz, the film tells the story of a newly ordained priest, Amaro (Gael García Bernal). He arrives in the small Mexican town of Los Reyes, and is quickly embroiled in the machinations of the local clerics, politicos, and drug traffickers.
He also becomes involved with Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancón), a young Sunday school teacher, to her misfortune. And this is the plot point that has drawn fire from Catholics in Mexico and the U.S. The affair itself is rather tame, but the circumstances surrounding it are more troubling, as Amaro is indoctrinated into the corruption, suppression, and trickery that are the norms in his parish.
On his arrival in town, Amaro seems selfless and idealistic: when his bus is stopped and robbed at gunpoint, he responds by giving his elderly seatmate a wad of cash to compensate for his loss. But the young Father proves to be as much a carnal opportunist as his new superior, Father Benito (Sancho Gracia). He spots the 16-year-old Amelia almost immediately, watching as her boyfriend, aspiring journalist Rubén (Andrés Montiel), kisses her goodbye. He’s leaving for a new job and worries aloud that she is too devoted to the Church. Little does he know. On his departure, she runs off to teach a catechism class, pausing to watch with googly eyes as Amaro strides across the playground.
Amaro and Amelia go on to seduce one another over communion, presided over by an assortment of spectral saints set in glass cases, pale as death. Their intimacy allows the sacred and profane to be commingled in inventive, often hilarious ways, as when Amelia confesses to Father Amaro that she thinks about Jesus when she touches herself in the shower. She insists, “I’m only devoted to God.”
Her loyalty is, of course, divided, insinuated after their first tryst, when Amaro’s face is reflected in the glass of a framed painting of Jesus. Amaro’s own self-division (and self-divination) is made visible in repeated close-ups that show him looking much like the plastic saints in the church, his boyish face upturned, slightly anguished, receiving a beatific vision. That vision? Priestly power as conferred upon him by his patron, Bishop Obispo (Ernesto Gómez Cruz).
This power means increasing involvement in schemes engineered by Benito, who is not only having an illicit affair with Amelia’s mother, but also laundering money for the narcos, using his share to build a “first world” hospital outside of town. Both Benito and Amaro use their supposed access to the divine to aggrandize themselves, while playing politics and doing good works with bad money. All this means that Carrera’s melodrama is not a condemnation of faith but of hypocrisy. Instead of being a blanket attack on the Catholic Church, as some protesters have claimed, El Crimen reveals the foibles of representatives of faith, their desires and their lapses.
Along with its catalogue of social and personal sins, the movie takes humorous aim at false instances of a unified body and soul. Besides obvious gags (a group of kids spread jam on communion wafers), some scenes include absurd imagery that, like so much Roman Catholic iconography and history, juxtaposes the otherworldly with the curates’ human failings. For instance, during Amaro and Amelia’s second rendezvous, a spastic child in the next room jerks and wails while gripping pages torn from a cartoonish catechism lesson, while Amaro drapes Amelia in a blue satin cloak: she poses demurely, “more beautiful,” he tells her, than the Virgin. By this point in the film, Amaro has roped the more-than-willing Amelia into his personal power games, and their trysts take place under the pretence of preparing her for a nunnery.
Amaro establishes an important point early on: Benito and Amaro do not operate in a vacuum, but are enabled by a hierarchy, represented by the Bishop, that covers up their wrongdoing and props up their rule over their parishioners. In that sense, Amaro‘s message is all too relevant.