Dir: Carlos Carrera Mex-Sp-Arg-Fr 2002 118mins.
Already breaking records at home in Mexico, Carlos Carrera's fifth feature is a compelling, multi-textured social drama that fires some hard questions at the role of the Catholic Church amid the extremes of wealth and poverty. Rising star Gael Garcia Bernal (Amores Perros, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Motorcycle Diaries) leads an excellent cast of numerous sharply-drawn characters, playing a young priest who finds himself embroiled in a small town's uneasy dynamics and the temptations and tempestuous relationships of his fellow clergy. If the film does not pack the same cinematic punch as successful Mexican exports such as Amores and Y Tu Mama, this is still high-calibre film-making. The controversial subject matter - especially in deeply Catholic Mexico - has stirred up a media storm that is driving the box office: there, it became the biggest grossing film ever in just under three weeks, taking $11.8m off some 400 screens. Outside Mexico will be a different story: Samuel Goldwyn Films, which picked up the film for North America, cannot rely on scandal in a region where fallen clergymen are lately commonplace.
The opening frames set the tone of rural lawlessness, as highwaymen rob the bus delivering young Father Amaro (Bernal) to Los Reyes, a small town in the Mexican interior. Newly ordained, Amaro has been placed in the parish of Father Benito (Gomez Cruz) to gain experience on the ground before moving on to bigger things. It isn't long before he discovers that his pastor has a flexible interpretation of the vow of celibacy and the nature of charity. Soon, Amaro is facing his own temptation in the comely figure of Amelia (Talancon), the devout young daughter of Sanjuanera (Aragon), the restaurant owner who happens to be Father Benito's comfort. Amelia has cut off her relationship with an aspiring journalist, a spurning that inflames his jealousy of the handsome new priest and his professional efforts to expose ties between Father Benito and the local drug lord who is laundering his profits through the parish.
Meanwhile, a priest deeper in the countryside is accused of sheltering and sympathising with peasant guerrillas at odds with the drug lord. As scandal envelopes Benito, it falls to Amaro to be the bishop's middleman in bringing the rural priest to heel. But then Amaro's own actions come back to haunt him, putting him in a vice of judging himself
Carreras tells a complex story in an unobtrusive style, letting the actors carry the audience rather than drive it with hand-held camera-work and a monster sound track. Screenwriter Vicente Lenero does an admirable job of compressing this exposition into tight pivotal sequences, but more impressive is the film's emotional breadth. What could have easily slipped into moralising melodrama is tweaked with flashes of political satire and comic double entendres. When Father Amaro is asked how goes his efforts in training young Amelia for the convent, he replies, "She seems to have a calling." Their secret courtship, so tenderly and convincingly portrayed, takes the film to a bitter-sweet peak before a cunningly-executed conclusion.
The film recalls the moral relativism of Ken Loach's Raining Stones, where the hypocrisy of the Catholic church proves to be one of its saving graces. But this paints a much more cynical picture, with Father Amaro's inculcation into the system absolute and irreversible.
Prod co: Alameda Films, Blu Films, IMCINE
Mex dist: Columbi TriStar/BVI Mexico
Int'l sales: Alameda
Exec prod: Laura Imperiale
Prods: Alfredo Ripstein, Daniel Birman Ripstein
Scr: Vicente Lenero, based on the novel by Jose Ma
Cinematography: Guillermo Granillo
Prod des: Carmen Jimenez Cacho
Ed: Oscar Figueroa
Music: Rosino Serrano
Main cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Ana Claudia Talancon, Sancho Gracia, Angelica Aragon, Damian Alcazar, Ernesto Gomez Cruz