As if the PR staff at the Vatican weren’t overworked already, here comes the American release of El Crimen del Padre Amaro, a film with enough blasphemous scenes involving Catholic iconography to make Chris Ofili, Madonna, and the cast of Bad Lieutenant blush. The highest-grossing domestic film in that country’s box-office history and director Carlos Carrera’s first feature to gain wide U.S. distribution, Amaro is the story of two less-than-strait-laced priests doing their best to liven up a dusty Mexican village. Rather than making Catholic audiences ashamed of church misdeeds, though, the film is more likely to leave them wondering why their parish isn’t filled with people quite so good-looking and long of lash.
Amaro is a curious mix of softcore sexuality, overcooked melodrama, and assured filmmaking. Much of it is both deftly done and beautiful to look at—the scenes shot through the fragile lattice of the confessional show a particular attention to visual detail. But the movie is just about as difficult to believe—not because its priests like their tequila, keep women on the side, and hang out on the weekends with drug dealers and murderous guerrillas, but because it insists on piling up coincidences and dubious interconnections until they begin to collapse under their own weight.
The film also marks another step toward wide stardom for the gifted 24-year-old Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, whom American audiences will remember from Mexico’s two best-known cinematic exports of late, Y Tu Mama Tambien and Amores Perros. In Amaro’s opening scene, Bernal’s handsome and fresh-faced young priest, Father Amaro, is sitting on a crowded bus, traveling to his new parish in a small town called Los Reyes. The bus is robbed by armed bandits, who make off with the life savings of the old man sitting next to Amaro.
The priest handles the robbery with unruffled stoicism, and as he’s disembarking, he slips the man a bit of his own money to help tide him over. But that’s the last time we see any purely good deed seep out of Father Amaro. Once he gets to his new post, he’s exposed to two forces that seriously weaken his religious resolve: the behavior of Father Benito (Sancho Gracia), the priest supposedly set to act as his mentor, and the beauty of 16-year-old Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancon), a parishioner so devout that when she has impure thoughts they involve Jesus himself.
It’s not long before Father Amaro is traipsing around like an unholy combination of Tony Soprano and Ricky Martin. When Father Benito confronts Amaro about his attraction to Amelia, he reminds the younger man that he took a vow of chastity. “Only because they forced me to,” he responds bluntly. And Father Benito isn’t exactly ready with a stern comeback, because he’s been sleeping with Amelia’s mother.
When Amelia breaks up with her journalist boyfriend (Andres Montiel) so she can begin pursuing an affair with Father Amaro, it’s only a matter of time before the priests’ privileged realm is shattered by rumor-mongering and 80-point headlines. Add a crisis over a pregnancy (guess whose), some chessboard symbolism (pawns, bishops—you get the idea), and some surprisingly nuanced characterizations, and the result is a theologically messy but wholly entertaining spectacle that can’t decide if it wants to be a soap opera or an art-house film with a conscience.
The Catholic Church in Mexico has been fiercely critical of Amaro, and over the past couple of weeks, Carrera has been engaging in a very 21st-century brand of self-serving logic: using interviews with the big-circulation U.S. dailies to argue that he is not, actually, interested in using scandal to help promote his movie. This from a director who initially planned the film’s Mexican release date to coincide with a visit by the pope. Amaro “was made very respectfully,” Carrera told a reporter from the Los Angeles Times. “None of the fundamental principles of the religion are ever questioned.”
Hmmm. That depends on what you consider a fundamental principle, I guess. Is the sacred nature of Communion a fundamental principle? Carrera and screenwriter Vicente Lenero have one character, a batty, black-toothed old woman named Dionisia (Luisa Huertas), feeding communion wafers to one of her cats, and in another scene, the comely Amelia lets the Host sit on her glistening, outstretched tongue a beat longer than seems natural, all the while staring up provocatively at Father Amaro. And what about the Virgin Mary? During one of their trysts, Amaro takes off Amelia’s clothes and then wraps her in a sheet so she looks like a Renaissance painting of the Madonna, as reimagined by Frederick’s of Hollywood.
Carrera, of course, knows exactly what buttons he’s pushing, but that particular scene sounds more Bunuelian than it is. As irreverent as the director gets, and as far as Father Amaro ultimately falls, Carrera is right: His film isn’t really about questioning religious principles. More than anything, Amaro is a guilty pleasure about guilty pleasure.
Atom Egoyan’s new film, Ararat, falls on the other side of the spectrum: On its list of priorities, entertainment is way down near the bottom. At the top of that list is educating Western audiences about the horrors of the Armenian genocide, in which Turkish forces carried out a brutal campaign of “relocation” against millions of Armenians living in what is now eastern Turkey during World War I. It’s a tough goal to question, but the movie never gets past pedagogy: We’re never allowed to forget that we’re being schooled.
The main reason for that is the overlapping and needlessly complicated structure that Egyptian-born Canadian-Armenian writer-director Egoyan has devised to tell his story. Jumping from past to present and spreading ever outward to include more and more characters, Ararat winds up keeping the viewer at arm’s length—if not alienated altogether. In the framing section of the film, set in Toronto, an aging Armenian film director named Edward Saroyan (the famous and tiny Franco-American musician and actor Charles Aznavour) is making a bloody, mainstream Hollywood period piece about Armenian valor in the face of Turkish violence. He hires as a consultant an art history professor named Ani (Arsinee Khanjian, Egoyan’s wife), who’s writing a book on the Armenian-American modernist painter Arshile Gorky, whom the director decides to add to his movie, even if his cinematic actions don’t exactly square with the historical record.
Meanwhile, Ani’s son Raffi (David Alpay) is sleeping with his stepsister Celia (Marie-Josee Croze), who accuses Ani of driving her father to suicide and likes to interrupt his mother’s lectures on Gorky with a kind of confused, confessional heckling only Freud could love. Still with me? Good, because we’ve haven’t begun to talk about the characters in Saroyan’s film, scenes from which seep into and sometimes take over the narrative of the larger movie.
Egoyan is clearly distrustful of the kinds of decisions that Saroyan makes, in the film-within-a-film, in an effort to appeal to a wide audience. Indeed, Ararat sometimes seems to be more about Egoyan’s anxieties about historical accuracy and the narcotic power of big-budget narrative than anything else.
And whatever one makes of those anxieties from a philosophical point of view, they’re a disaster as an organizing cinematic principle. There are ways to tell a story, even a complicated historical story, with economy and directness and appeal without turning into a Hollywood drone. The scenes from the film-within-a-film involving fighting and suffering have a ridiculousness about them that runs exactly counter to Egoyan’s goal of getting us to pay attention to an overlooked piece of history. And the director never finds a satisfying way to work in the actual historical details of his ancestors’ suffering. There are lots of awkward expositional moments in Egoyan’s script—scenes in which the natural flow of the action or dialogue comes to a halt so that some present-day character can recite facts about the number of Armenian dead, or say about Armenian fighters, tears welling in his eyes, “They were heroes!”
Nonetheless, Egoyan has coaxed quiet, persuasive acting from nearly every member of his cast: from Aznavour as the stern, unflappable Saroyan; from young Alpay, with his huge brown eyes and mop of hair, as the earnest, inquisitive Raffi; and from Christopher Plummer as a customs agent who engages in a painfully slow-paced interrogation of the art historian’s son when he returns from a trip to Turkey with some suspicious-looking film cans. Along with Egoyan’s typically fluid and unhurried visual style, these nearly mournful performances serve as Ararat’s only saving grace. In every other way, the movie is simply too much of too much. It’s an experiment in setting the record straight that somehow manages to knock it even farther off-center. CP