Carlos Carrera's controversial The Crime Of Father Amaro (El Crimen Del Padre Amaro)has become a phenomenon at the Mexican box office. Released on an unprecedented 356 prints by Columbia TriStar last Friday, the $1.8m drama grossed 31m pesos ($3.1m) in its opening weekend.

That would nearly triple the current record opening for a Mexican film, established by Alfonso Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien, which opened with 11.9m pesos ($1.3m) on 250 screens in June last year.

Father Amaro, which stars Mexican hearthrob Gael Garcia Bernal (Amores Perros, Y Tu Mama Tambien) grossed 8m pesos on Friday, jumping to 10.5m pesos on Saturday. Theatres reportedly were sold out across Mexico as early as 11am each morning. As Sundays tend to register higher moviegoing activity in Mexico, observers believe that the film will end up tallying more than 30m pesos for the three days.

Columbia TriStar has a first-look at rest of the world on the film, with the exception of Spain, which is controlled by co-producer Wanda Films. No North American deal on the film has been set.

Protests from various catholic groups and some religious authorities including a petition to Mexican president Vicente Fox to ban the film, only served to fuel interest in the film and generate widespread media coverage.

Ultrarightwing group Provida filed a lawsuit against state-backed Imcine, which provided some financing, ratings board RTC that gave the drama a B-15 rating (acceptable for ages 15 and above) and the film's producer Alfredo Ripstein of Alameda Films

Adapted from the 1875 novel by Portuguese author Jose Maria Eca de Queiroz, the story centres on a scandal about a young priest, played by Bernal, who journeys to a remote provincial town, where he has an affair with a young woman who then has an abortion. Scenes considered objectionable include one where Padre Amaro places the Virgin Mary's veil over the woman before making love to her and another when a cat eats a communion host.