Carlos Carrera’s El Crimen del Padre Amaro begins with a disclaimer of sorts. Though based on a novel by Eça de Queirós written in 1875, the film takes place in modern Mexico. The story itself remains the same, as does the overall effect: the Catholic Church is as ill-equipped for this century as it was for the last. Padre Amaro (Gael García Bernal) is sent to Los Reyes to assist the aging Padre Benito (Sancho Gracia) at the town’s basilica. Benito condemns Padre Natalio (Damián Alcázar) for associating with impoverished guerrillas and refuses to contest the church’s celibacy policy for priests. The man’s hypocrisy is overwhelming: not only is he having an affair with Sanjuanera (Angélica Aragón), a local restaurant owner, but he’s also helping to fund a local medical clinic with money provided by an infamous drug lord, the very man Natalio’s guerrilla warriors are taking arms against. A box-office sensation in its native homeland, El crimen del Padre Amaro unravels like a quintessential Mexican telenovela. Though the film’s provocations are incendiary, they’re also humorous and earnest without being heavy-handed; no small feat considering how easy it is for films like The Magdalene Sisters to be blindsided by their raging polemics. Padre Amaro’s relationship with Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancón), la Sanjuaranera’s daughter, is a fascinating one. During confession, Amaro tells her that it is not a sin for her to touch herself but that it is sinful for her to think of Jesus when doing so. Not that she’s thinking of having sex with Jesus, of course. This tender exchange merely evokes Amaro’s fear of approaching sex as a spiritual experience. They schedule secret rendezvous inside the home of the church’s impoverished driver, whose mentally ill daughter listens to Amaro and Amelia’s lovemaking from an adjacent room. The film’s money shot is audacious yet tender, recalling a more notorious sequence from Viridiana where Buñuel’s titular heroine milked a cow’s teat at the forceful request of a servant. Amaro dresses Amelia as the Virgin Mary before making love to her. If their secret love makes Amelia feel like a whore then this beautiful scene suggests Amaro’s willingness to give himself to a different kind of religion. The Church’s hold, though, is unforgiving and, as a result, the demise of their love plays out like a tragic act of penance.
Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment preserves the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio of El Crimen del Padre Amaro in anamorphic widecreen. Skin tones are accurate and blacks are rock-solid but the transfer is an overall disappointment. Edge halos are noticeable throughout while the print itself is grainy and often dirty. Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find any shot after chapter 15 free of spots and dirt. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track fairs noticeably better. Dialogue is crisp and the dramatic Rosino Serrano score is appropriately aggressive.
Gael García Bernal and director Carlos Carrera provide commentary for the film in Spanish. Because the commentary itself is on the mundane side, non-Spanish speakers may not want to spend much time reading this subtitled conversation. Bernal and Carrera are both soft-spoken and polite but their comments lack spice; only when they discuss how they purposefully subverted church officials during production does the track seem to take off. A genuinely terrible making-of documentary is included here. It’s essentially a lazy and overlong movie trailer with an anglicized voiceover detailing factoids about the film (i.e. it was the most successful and controversial Mexican film of all time) and interspersed throughout are random shots from the production. The featurette is also available in Spanish. Also included here is a poster gallery and trailers for the film and Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her.
The must-see El Crimen del Padre Amaro doesn’t get much love on video, no thanks to a sub-par video transfer and a poor man’s collection of special features.