Letter from Mexico: Sexuality, Censorship and the Church in Mexico

Article excerpt

The often quiet Mexican summer was interrupted by the release of El Crimen Del Padre Amaro (The Crime of Father Amaro), not only because it broke box office records in its first weekend, but also because the movie outraged Catholic bishops and provoked both calls for it to be banned and a defense of artistic freedom of expression.

The film, shown in only 365 movie theaters, reached an audience of 863,000 people and earned 31 million pesos (more than $3.1 million), becoming Mexico's highest-grossing home grown film ever in its first weekend. These figures are remarkable for a non-Hollywood movie that was made for a mere 21 million pesos ($2.1 million).

The controversy started well before the movie hit our screens. Its release was delayed when Columbia Pictures and the filmmakers agreed to wait until after the Pope John Paul II left the country in late July. But even that sop to the church hierarchy in a supposedly secular state was not enough for right wing groups like ProVida (Prolife).

The Carlos Carrera movie, set in modern day rural Mexico, is based on a nineteenth century novel by Portuguese author Jose Eca de Queiroz. Father Amaro is a young and ambitious priest played by Gael Garcia Bernal--star of other Mexican-made hit movies Amores Perros and Y Tu Mama Tambien--who becomes sexually and emotionally involved with a teenage female parishioner. He is not alone. His peers have also gone astray: one has a long-term relationship with a woman and is taking money from drug traffickers, while another appears to support leftist guerrillas. Naturally, given the polarity of views on these subjects in Mexico, the movie sparked a sometimes serious but more usually sensationalist debate.

The film is hard-hitting and irreverent. Conservative groups argued that the disrespect paid to a communion wafer (a woman feeds it to a cat) and to the Virgin of Guadalupe (Father Amaro places her shawl on his beloved) were sufficient reasons to ensure that the movie never saw the light of day. There is no doubt that this is blasphemous, but the central question is whether blasphemy should be censored. The scene in the car is also tough to take. But the film hits home, not only because it deals explicitly with the difficulties facing priests who are not convinced of their vocation, but also it shows that many different positions on important social justice issues exist within the priesthood and the hierarchy of the Catholic church. In any case, art is often unforgiving in its reflection of the ways in which ordinary Catholics have been so disrespected that they in turn reject even sacred aspects of Catholicism.

Those opposed to the movie hit hard and often.

Several members of the Catholic hierarchy immediately called for the movie to be banned, a fitting response for an organization that seems scared to confront the real world. Celibacy for Catholic priests, drug trafficking, workers' rights and abortion are among the real world issues that young Father Amaro has to deal with, but that the hierarchy shy away from.

Cardinal Juan Sandoval Iniguez from Guadalajara claimed, "it is very likely that the movie was conceived by the enemies of the Catholic church, who in spite of being a minority, have launched an attack against Catholic people who respect the freedom of religion."

Bishop Felipe Arizmendi from San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas argued, "after we were so full of grace these past days because of the visit of our Holy Father John Paul II, opposing winds and waves of infamy against the Catholic church are announced by the showing of The Crime of Father Amaro."

"This is a work that is loaded with hatred of our church," said Bishop Alberto Suarez of western Michoacan state. And although President Vicente Fox remained silent about the debate, his mother, Mercedes Quesada told the press: "The film is a piece of trash, I have said that before. It is an offense to the church and Catholics. …