Film poses new challenge to church

MEXICO CITY -- Even now that the initial rush to the cinema is over, a new movie about a wayward young priest continues to shock Mexicans and test their feelings about sex, sin and censorship.

"The Crime of Father Amaro" is about a young Roman Catholic priest having a sexual affair with a 16-year-old girl while a superior consorts with drug traffickers and another priest supports armed insurgents.

Despite and no doubt because of protests from church leaders, the film set a record for tickets sold in its first days in the theaters last month.

The movie is the latest from a reborn Mexican film industry intent on addressing the nation's hard reality, rather than offering more of the shoot-'em-ups and romances of the past. But "Father Amaro" has touched a sensitive nerve at a time of controversy and change for the Roman Catholic Church.

While the salacious plot line certainly drew some in the audience, many viewers said they bought tickets in a show of support for freedom of expression. They say it is another marker in Mexico's path toward more openness and away from the paternalism that kept some movies out of the cinemas in the past.

"This isn't a new theme, but it bothers me that someone would want to prohibit the movie," said Adriana Castillo, 20, a sociology student.

"There are things that some people want to hide," she said, "but we all know what's going on and this movie is a clear example of it, although there were scenes that were a little aggressive."

The film, scheduled to open in the United States in November, is the latest challenge to the church in Mexico. Ninety percent of Mexicans are Catholic, but many express a deep suspicion of the clergy stemming from the revolution of the early 20th Century.

In recent months, the church has acknowledged a problem with sexual abuse by priests, similar to that in the U.S. Last week, a Mexican priest was extradited to Italy to face charges that he abused minors while at a parish in Naples.

"Father Amaro" stars Gael Garcia Bernal, a young Mexican heartthrob. He previously starred in "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and "Amores Perros," recent films that have tested Mexico's appetite and tolerance for sex, violence and a sober look at their troubles.

In the film, the young priest reports for his first duty and finds the local pastor involved with a woman and using drug cartel money to build a hospital. The new priest then begins a romance with the daughter of the older priest's mistress.

Meanwhile, a third priest is ministering to guerrillas in the hillsides, reminiscent of the help that some rebellious "liberation theology" priests have offered the Zapatista rebels.

And in a scene that has especially upset many Catholics, an eccentric woman spits out her communion wafers, sneaks them home and feeds them to her cats.

Even before the movie arrived in theaters, some church leaders protested that it was a disrespectful attack on the church. They said it exaggerated problems that were rare and isolated.

But other church leaders called it "a wake-up call" about the feelings of the Mexican public. They lamented the church's appeals to parishioners not to see the film, which backfired.

The movie's makers said they were surprised at the extent of the outrage. They said its box-office success was proof that Mexico was ready to look in the mirror.

"Our country has gone beyond" censorship, Garcia, the star, said at a news conference in August.

In another way, "Father Amaro" struck a chord with Mexicans because of their disillusionment with their leaders, whether political or religious. But some viewers found that a peek at what claims to be the truth can be upsetting.

"It's the reality in which we are living, but apart from that, we have to respect religion," said Marco Vinicio Nava, 24, an accounting student. "Although each one of us will be able to decide whether we want to see [the film] or not, I will not recommend this to anyone and I would rather see `Rocky.'"