Monday, February 07, 2005

The Crime of Father Amaro

It's easy to dismiss this film as middlebrow Mexican melodrama. Indeed it features a bunch of ageing stars from the telenovelas, and the whole idea of catholic priests giving into temptation seems to belong to that genre. All a bit old mitre, you might say.

Truth is though that although El Crimen de Padre Amaro definitely becomes a melodrama the first hour or so are best understood as a satire and a very biting one at that. Yet I'm afraid if you can only follow the subtitles much of the irony will tend to slip by unnoticed.

I think what happened here is that the headline news-item about the misadventures of country priest was probably lifted from the Portuguese source novel written back in 1875. The scriptwriters then set about grafting onto this a more hollistic critique of the role of the priesthood in near-contemporary Mexico. This would account for the strong currents of censorious nineteenth century ethics throughout which seem juxtaposed with the moral complexity and ambivalence elsewhere. (Though perhaps we shouldn't expect anything coming out of Mexico to be antiseptically Modern in its outlook.)

It's very easy for us cosy first worlders to forget that the Catholic faith is still very much a public project in Mexico! Indeed, in a country where social justice is remarkably hard to come by, many people look to the men in cassocks for some sort of resolution of the question of ultimate Justice.

One of the priests in the film, Father Natalio, is depicted as a classic Liberation Theologist - more or less a Marxist in a dog collar- a seeker of justice within a historical dialectic if not in the here and now. Meanwhile the character of the bruja who rushes home to feed the host to her black cat with a sinister "ameeeeen" highlights another way that the message of the Church is typically muddled in those parts - by grafting itself onto the traditional beliefs of the indigenous peoples of America, Catholic dogma, such as the meritocratic afterlife with its notion of Resurrection, has become irremediably tangled up with the spirit world. The latter is a murky, animistic place full of rather headstrong ancestors, not quite heaven or hell, and certainly no place to seek Justice.

I drew a clear parallel between the Catholic Church and the CIA in my Local Assets posting last week, and the point is worth re-emphasising here. It's clear to me that one of the key questions being raised by this film is whether the bad apples bear the same relatationship to their organisation as say spam does to legitimate email, or whether the apple tree itself is fundamentally rotten.

On the one hand we the viewers are being asked to consider whether decency can possibly expect to survive in such a bent work environment, and yet we are clearly also presented with the case for realpolitik. For example Father Benito has taken laundered funds from local narco Chato Aguilar in order to build a big hospital. "We are taking bad money and making it good", he contends - i.e. who cares where the money comes from because the outcome is pretty neat, isn't it? Do I have to mention Colonel North?

The problem with this ends-based line of argument is exposed by the sub-plot surrounding the young journalist who is chosen to expose the dodgy priest's relationship with the drug lords. Unknown to him, the incriminating images from a baptism have been passed to his newspaper after the photographer himself was brutally done in by a thug with a old grievance against Chato Aguilar. Conclusion - nobody is left unpoisoned by the venom that runs through the veins of this country.

Idealism has enough to cope with without all the complications this local situation implies and when you throw in sexual repression too, you are bound to end up with an unhealthy outlook. I say this as a man married to someone who very nearly became yet another victim of a seminary abuser. No doubt that particular young man embarked on his vocation hoping to make the world a better place. Yet Michael Jackson is almost synonymous with that same aspiration and look where he has ended up!

I wish I could wholeheartedly agree with pragmatists like Richard Rorty who see religion as essentially just another way to lead a good life (while remaining atheists themselves it has to be said!). The right to have faith should be as inviolable as the right to fall in love, Rorty attests, adding that "Religious tools are needed to make possible certain kinds of human life but not others". It's a charitable outlook, but ignores an awful lot of history.

If you strip down Christianity to its most worthwhile kernel you are left with Christ's message of Love. (This ought to be the "bottom line" of Christianity, not the "burning of the flesh" suggested recently by one of my readers!) Charity appears to lie at the core of Father Amaro's being too - in the opening scenes he us shown engaging in an act of selfless kindness - alerting us to a basic virtue that we later see undermined by the sin of ambition primarily, but of course also by lust! (He indulges in such elaborate preparations for his tryst with Amelia you have to ask why these didn't include the acquisition of a condom - another legacy of Eça de Queirós' novel I suppose.)

I guess it's true that the makers of this film don't seem to have ready solutions to the issues they are exposing, but why should they? One problem they faced is that it's hard to "out" the sublimated sensuality in the Church from within a culture that is so impregnated with the Catholic mentality. One of the side effects of this is a current of misogyny not unlike the one that runs through the religion itself. For example, I'm not convinced that Amelia is portrayed as an unblemished innocent. On the contrary, her getting off to thoughts of Jesus is mocked as the kind of knucklheaded popular (female) piety that underlies the whole sorry mess. The chess-playing secularists on the other hand are all educated men.

And it was no doubt the idea of Gael Garcia Bernal shagging with a 16 year-old schoolgirl dressed as the Virgin Mary that made this Mexico's biggest ever box office hit, rather than general excitement about its socio-political ramifications. Still, this is a worthwhile work of art that takes the story of one man's debasement and puts it in the context of a debased society. Unlike most Europeans many Mexicans will have enough of a sense of their own debasement to be disconcerted by the miasmas of intractability that it conjures up.

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