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Spotlight Report

Groups decry film depicting Mexican priests' misdeeds

Catholic leaders call for boycott; organization sues

By Marion Lloyd, Globe Correspondent, 8/16/2002

MEXICO CITY - Priests who have affairs with parishioners, take money from drug traffickers, and harbor leftist guerrillas are the subject of Mexican director Carlos Carrera's controversial new film, ''The Crime of Father Amaro,'' which opens today amid heated protests from Catholic groups.

The Mexican Bishops Conference, the main governing body for the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico, has called on the country's 90 million Catholics to boycott the film. A national antiabortion group, Pro Vida, has filed suit against several government officials involved with the film, accusing them of violating laws that protect religious freedoms - and demanding that the film be barred from Mexican theaters. The government provided $350,000 toward the production of the film.

The director denies the work was intended as an attack on the Catholic Church.

''It's just the tale of one isolated town in Mexico, not a critique of the Catholic Church as a whole,'' Carrera, whose short film ''The Hero'' won a Golden Palm award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994, was quoted as saying in the daily newspaper Reforma.

''Father Amaro'' could hardly debut at a more sensitive time for the Catholic Church in Mexico. The church hierarchy is reeling from its own version of the priest sex-abuse scandal that has rocked the US church. Meanwhile, the church is seeking to increase its influence in the conservative government of President Vicente Fox, whose Cabinet is packed with observant Catholics.

Fox, whose victory in 2000 ended 71 years of populist rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, has made a habit of flouting the country's once-sacrosanct separation of church and state. Most recently, he broke with tradition by becoming the first Mexican president to attend a papal Mass and by kissing the pontiff's ring during Pope John Paul II's visit July 30-Aug. 2.

In protesting the film and in other actions, Catholic groups are trying to capitalize on the president's religious sympathies to increase their role in shaping public policy, analysts say.

''They are not only asking for censorship. They're demanding that the Catholics in positions of power act like Catholics and put a halt to these types of productions,'' said Bernardo Barranco, director of the Center for Religious Studies in Mexico City. ''The film itself is secondary. But the reaction to it signals a growing shift toward the right in Mexico and a growing move toward intolerance.''

He noted that other films critical of the Catholic Church, such as the adaptation of Graham Green's novel ''The Power and the Glory,'' sparked little controversy when they were released under PRI governments. But, he said, Catholic groups now feel they have a potential ally in Fox's government.

Barranco said conservative business groups aligned with Fox's National Action Party have been increasingly successful in controlling the media by threatening to revoke advertising to protest against programming they deem offensive. In 1997, irate advertisers nearly forced a local television channel into bankruptcy after it ran interviews with priests accusing the head of the Mexican-based Legionaries of Christ, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, of molesting them in the 1950s. The case has never been formally investigated.

Conservatives claimed a victory when they succeeded in delaying the release of ''The Crime of Father Amaro'' until after the pope's visit. No date has been set for its release in the United States.

The film tells the story of a young priest (played by Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, star of ''Amores Perros'' and ''Y Tu Mama Tambien'') who falls in love with a 16-year-old female parishioner. As the protagonist grapples with feelings of guilt, he discovers that his fellow parish priests have also gone astray: One is maintaining an affair with a woman while accepting money from drug traffickers to fund a new hospital, and another is helping leftist guerrillas.

''The film is blasphemy ... and its sponsors are trampling on religious freedom, our most sacred beliefs and our rights,'' Jorge Serrano Limon, the president of Pro Vida, said after filing suit against the interior minister, the secretary of arts and culture, and the head of the Mexican Film Institute.

He and other critics particularly objected to two scenes: In the first, the film's protagonist kisses a teenage parishioner under a portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's most revered religious figure. In another, the girl spits out a Communion wafer and feeds it to her cat.

''I don't say that such lapses among priests don't exist, but they aren't the norm,'' Juan Sandoval Iniguez, the outspoken bishop of Guadalajara, wrote in his diocese's weekly publication, Seminario. He accused the film's sponsors of launching an attack on the Catholic Church.

The state-run film institute cited Mexican laws guaranteeing freedom of expression in justifying its decision to grant funding for the film. The script is a modern adaptation of a 19th-century novel by Portuguese writer Jose Maria Eca de Queiroz. The screenplay was written by Vicente Lenero, who won Mexico's top literature prize in 2001.

This story ran on page A33 of the Boston Globe on 8/16/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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