Adapted from the 19th century Portuguese novel and updated to contemporary Mexico by screenwriter Vicente Lenero, El Crimen del Padre Amaro is the story of the title priest (Gael Garcia Bernal), a well-connected recent seminary graduate. Initially, Amaro considers himself an idealist. At different early moments we see him give money to the needy and offer comfort to the damaged. He does not fully embrace liberation theology, but he obviously admires Father Natalio (Damian Alcazar), who is in trouble with church officials for identifying himself too closely with the impoverished peasants of his mountain parish.
Amaro's idealism, however, is tempered and swiftly destroyed by his ambition. He is the protege of a bishop (Ernesto Gomez Cruz), who sends him to the provincial capital of Los Reyes to serve with Father Benito (Sancho Gracia), an aging priest who suffers from heart disease. The bishop clearly intends that Amaro's apprenticeship will be short. When we first meet him, Benito seems Amaro's opposite. Benito is working class, whereas Amaro is patrician. Moreover, Benito has decided that neither the rules of the church nor the strictures of moral behavior apply to him personally. Benito keeps restaurant owner Sanjuanera (Angelica Aragon) as his mistress and barely bothers to keep the fact a secret. Worse, Benito consorts with the local drug lord and uses the town's hospital project as a mechanism for laundering the gangster's drug profits.
In short order, Benito becomes less Amaro's antagonist than his role model. From Benito Amaro quickly learns the self-justifying art of rationalization. When a local newspaper reveals Benito's connections with the drug cartel, Amaro colludes with the bishop and the mayor (Pedro Armendariz) to rebut the story with false testimony. When the newspaper editor balks at running Amaro's assemblage of lies, the young priest threatens to wield the church's influence to intimidate the paper's advertisers. Even more viciously, Amaro demands that the editor fire Ruben de la Rosa (Andres Montiel), the journalist who exposes Benito. Amaro has personal reasons for going after Ruben: the priest has eyes for Ruben's girlfriend Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancon), Sanjuanera's 16-year-old daughter.
And so it goes. Amaro starts sleeping with Amelia, whose girlish heart confuses her religious faith with her physical attraction to the handsome young cleric. In order to protect his sexual indiscretion, Amaro fires Martin (Gaston Melo), the parish's humble sacristan. Eventually, Amaro impregnates Amelia (an altogether predictable development) and arranges an abortion with Dionisia (Luisa Huertas), arguably the town witch. As the closing credits roll, Amaro has violated all the commandments and church teachings, save for those he will presumably violate later.
The issue of clerical celibacy is raised directly in this film when Amaro says he has agreed to celibacy only because the church requires it. And one might argue that much of the harm Amaro does would be eliminated if he and Amelia were simply allowed to marry. But critically, violation of his celibacy vow is only a small example of Amaro's plummet from grace. His overarching sin is his repeated willingness to put his own career over the well-being of others.
You will hardly find me an apologist for the institutional Christian church, Catholic or Protestant. And director Carrera no doubt sees El Crimen del Padre Amaro an attack on church corruption, not a broadside against the principles for which the church is supposed to stand. But the problem here is the picture's notable lack of subtlety. The devil doesn't have to work very hard for Amaro's soul. Bernal contorts his face as if Amaro endures genuine moral anguish. But he always chooses the wrong path. He inevitably opts for power, prestige and personal advancement at the expense of virtue.
Meanwhile, Amaro is not adequately balanced by figures with greater devotion. The bishop and Benito are simply examples of the kind of man Amaro will become as he grows older. Carrera perhaps sees balance in the crusading Father Natalio. But this is a priest who sanctions the murder of innocents in a guerilla campaign against drug lords and corrupt institutions, a philosophy of ends justifying means with which Osama bin Laden would feel entirely comfortable. As Mercutio observed of the Capulets and the Montagues, "A plague on both your houses."