El Crimen del Padre Amaro Review

Father Amaro (Gael García Bernal) is an up and coming young priest who, having just taken his vows, is dispatched to rural Mexico to work with the difficult Father Benito (Sancho Gracia) who seems to entertain some dubious links with the local drug barons. Though a little wet behind the ears, he quickly starts to learn the ropes of local politics and the bishop starts to put his trust in him to keep the Catholic Church's image untarnished. His generous nature and his youth make him an ideal role model for the church but Amaro has his own demons clawing into his back in the shape of the beautiful but pious Amelita (Ana Claudia Talancón).

Adapted from a Portuguese novel written back in 1875, the film was Mexico's biggest ever success but disappeared without a trace in the UK despite starring Gael García Bernal, the new face of Mexican cinema. Though El Crimen del Padre Amaro has been attacked by many Catholic groups as pure defamation, it's hard to see exactly what is so controversial about it. The themes it explores are relatively low-key compared to the scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church in recent years and the director hasn't taken the lazy path of characterising in black and white - even the more despicable characters have their redeeming features. A great deal of the criticisms levied at the church are relatively fair and well documented such as the questioning of some of the traditional Catholic dogma such as clerical celibacy or the Vatican's opposition to Liberation Theology but there's the occasional scene that will cause offence to anyone who believes in transubstantiation.

Compared to the frantic pace of Amores Perros or Y Tu Mama Tambien, El Crimen del Padre Amaro is very different in style and rhythm. The story unfolds at a slow cadence but retains enough of an edge to escape from the melodramatic direction the story seems eager to take. Bernal, Gracia and Alcázar perform well as the duelling priests and are given enough screen time to develop fully but some of the secondary characters could have done with a little more depth as many of them seem slightly two dimensional. The cinematography is relatively low-key and gimmick-free but makes some effective use of focus and unusual angles to keep the film ticking over. Globally, the film is good without being great and maybe suffers from the controversy it created and some heavy-handed plot twists - it's not by any stretch of the imagination the greatest Mexican movie of all time but is a good enough film to make the viewing worthwhile.

The DVD:

The Image:
Surprisingly for a film this age, the image is not flawless. The print exhibits some damage such as lines and some recurring gouges that have been partially removed - this occurs for only a few minutes but is a rather surprising flaw. There's also a few minutes in which black flecks appear very frequently on the image which also lasts for a few minutes. Bar that, the transfer is good with a good balance of hues and an anamorphic transfer. I didn't notice any artifacting to speak of but a few scenes exhibit a certain graininess. All in all a good transfer marred by the occasional problem.

The Sound:
We get three 5.1 soundtracks: the original Spanish, dubbed English or dubbed Italian. Of course, the dubbed version is rather bad in comparison to the original soundtrack and seems to be rather flat when compared to the Spanish mix, which makes a good use of stereo effects and the occasional use of the surround speakers.

The Subtitles:
The English subtitles are grammatical and problem-free with almost all the dialogue subtitled and little missed out. One niggle however is that the church songs are not subtitled which is a bit of a shame given that some of them act as a counterpoint to the action.

The Extras:
The commentary features Bernal and Carrera talking about the filming, the controversy, the characters and the actors - this is all subtitled in English, and it's usually clear which one is speaking. Generally it's a lively and rather good commentary that covers most of the ground you'd expect but also gives us some of the facts to backup some of the accusations made against the church.
We also get a very short (5 mins) making of (which gives away far too much and is really just promotional material), four short (less than a minute each) interviews with the director and leads, along with the usual batch of trailers (US and International versions) and a poster gallery. Whilst the only substantial extra is the commentary, it's worth applauding the inclusion of extras on a foreign language film as they all too often tend to be overlooked by mainstream editors.

Though the image is slightly disappointing given the age of the film, the extras offer some compensation for that. Though the film is hardly one of Mexico's boldest cinematic efforts, it is worth looking out for.

7 out of 10
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