In calmer times, "The Crimes of Father Amaro," the movie that scandalized Mexican Catholics in box-office record-breaking numbers, would have caused at least a minor stir in the United States. It features pederast and otherwise incelibate priests, power drunk bishops and even a woman who feeds a consecrated host to her cat. But American Catholics, with the real stakes of the sexual abuse crisis in play, have little outrage to spare for outlandishly imperfect but fictional Mexican priests. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' website has barely taken notice of the film. The Catholic League, which once lived to protest these kinds of excesses has no demonstrations planned for this weekend, when "Amaro" opens in five U.S. cities.

The filmmakers, God knows, have done their part; "Amaro" doesn't lack for excesses. In the quiet hill town of Los Reyes, depicted nicely by director Carlos Carerra as a picturesque backwater, temptation seems to hang from every tree. The priests drink and gorge on food to blot out their boredom and the altar guild is packed with busybodies who blur voodoo and true faith. Even the good priest (we know he's good because he has a beard and preaches liberation theology) harbors violent guerillas. Father Benito, their head priest, is squarely in the Graham Greene mold--a compromised man of God who cozy with the drug lords, and cozier yet with the rectory cook.

Father Amaro (Gael Garcia Bernal, last seen in "Y Tu Mama Tambien"), on the other hand, arrives in town as an innocent, humble and intense. It looks at first as if the bishop, who has handpicked Amaro out of seminary as his protege, has sent him to clean up the dirty dealings in the parish.

But Amaro soon catches on to how things work in Los Reyes, and he's quickly on his own race to the bottom. He takes up with the cook's fresh-faced daughter, Amelia, under the pretense of preparing her for the convent. Replacing the ailing Father Benito as the evil bishop's henchman, Amaro ruins the career of Amelia's old flame, a journalist who has connected Benito with drug money. At the bishops behest he cracks down on the people's priest and, on his own account, blackmails Benito to protect the secret of his and Amelia's mutual seduction.

It's tempting - but too simple - to say that Carerra and his screenwriter, an observant Catholic named Vicente Linero, have bitten off more than they can chew. After a fashion, they manage to get it all down; the problem is, it's not a very appetizing process to watch. Crammed into "The Crime of Father Amaro" is material enough for several completely credible movies-one about a priest involved in a love triangle; another about choosing between bad money and good deeds (the narco's cash is being used to build a much-needed hospital); yet another about the disenchantment of a newbie priest.

Carerra, a past award winner at Cannes, is plenty talented enough to have made all these ideas fascinating. But to accomplish all that Carerra wants to, Amaro has to take seriously as a lover a woman who says she gets excited about Jesus in the shower, and viewers must take seriously a priest who has his own issues about the Blessed Virgin. By the time illicit love ends badly, Amaro is too shallow a figure to be called tragic.

Carerra and Linero based their story on an 1875 novel in Portuguese by Jose Maria Eca de Queiroz, adding modern references and toning down the original Amaro's cynicism so we can see the process of his corruption. But by softening him, he loses Amaro's rationale. His conscience doesn't appear to have been corrupted by the bishop or his lover so much as by the necessities of the movie's agenda. Amaro tells his liberation theologist colleague that he admires him, and, in one of the movie's most moving scenes, Amaro pleads tearfully with the Virgin not to let him throw his vocation away. But his doubts aren't strong enough to overcome the movie's pessimism about anyone in a Roman collar, and his pleas go unheard.

By making Amaro a stand-in for their own disenchantment with the Church, the film's authors forfeit a subversive poke at clerical hypocrisy and Gothic sexual fastidiousness and end up with a humorless fantasy of betrayal by the Church. The main point, which seems to be that celibacy denies people love and ruins lives, gets lost, and Carerra's handsome direction--along with all of the supporting characters--gets flattened under the burden of his all-encompassing indictment.

Given all these objections, how account for the wild success of "Father Amaro" in Catholic Mexico, where its earnings rival those of "Titanic?" The Church's opposition to the movie--at least one archbishop proclaimed it a sin to see it--inevitably created curiosity about the film, as did the Mexican president's wife, when she questioned the use of federal arts money to partially fund the film.

But "Amaro" clearly relied on more than wonderful publicity. Carerra himself explains the movie's success by implying Mexicans are worried about the drug lords' influence with the Church and were glad to see it addressed. But clearly he tapped into a broader suspicion of the Catholic Church as an institution--the same suspicion that has served to push the abuse crisis here beyond charges of sexual misbehavior. The movie, for all its folly, does depict the Church's propensity to treat priestly failings as political, even adminstrative, matters, instead of a central concern of its mission.

Whatever the reasons for its great numbers, they have convinced Samuel Goldwyn to bring the movie to 45 U.S. theaters in a limited run. Some Americans may find the peek into Mexican Catholicism interesting, including the enduring syncretism that makes a devout harpy think the consecrated host will cure her cat's cold. And fans of "Y Tu Mama Tambien" may want another chance to gaze upon Garcia Bernal. But for those tempted by scandal, it's worth asking: If "Amaro" isn't worth the Catholic League's ire, can it be worth your time?

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