Letter from Mexico

Sexuality, Censorship and the Church in Mexico

By María Consuelo Mejía and Miriam Ruiz Mendoza
Autumn 2002

IThe 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 Tú Mama También–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 Iñiguez 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 Cristóbal 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.”

Conservative groups placed fullpage adverts in Mexican newspapers opposing the film, and the Interior Minister, Santiago Creel, also spoke out against the film.

The fact that the government provided $350,000 toward the production of the film through the Mexican Film Institute was another target for conservatives. The funding merely added to newspaper coffers, as the Film Institute and the government’s Arts Council took out counter adverts to justify the funding.

However, the box office figures show that despite the hierarchy’s opposition, or perhaps because of it, huge numbers of people went to see the movie. Mexican filmmaking is going through somewhat of a renaissance, following decades when our best and brightest movies could not be shown because censors thought they might offend either our political class or religious institutions. So most Mexicans are delighted to see a change from our regular diet of absurd and low quality Mexican movies.

The week after the film premiered, a public debate was held between the director Carlos Carrera and ProVida member, Miguel Salazar.

In a packed room Carrera–who produced Mexican president Vicente Fox’s TV adverts during his July 2000 election campaign and is regarded as a key factor in Fox’s victory–said he had no intention of attacking the Catholic church. “But so what?” he asked. “What if that was my intention?” To illustrate his point, he cited one of Mexico’s premier filmmakers, Luis Buñuel-a surrealist who came from Spain to México in the 1940s after working with Salvador Dalí. Buñuel filmed several controversial but nonetheless highly respected films that confront Catholic beliefs–Nazarín and the Milky Wayspring to mind. Carrera’s point that one can be controversial and at the same time respectful was well made, and acknowledged by the audience.

Garcia Bernal, who plays the 24- year-old Father Amaro, and is one of Mexico’s biggest rising stars, also spoke out. “I believe the controversy arises because it is an honest movie,” he said. “These people think Mexicans are really stupid, and we’re not. The film doesn’t attack faith, the Virgin or anybody,” he added. “It’s about an isolated event in an institution, based on a novel, and that’s it. And really, the story is much lighter than the real world, which is where the child molesters are.”

Noted Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes scorned the church hierarchy’s attempts to cast itself as a moral arbiter. “Can the church aspire to correct itself? Or should everything remain hidden at home?” he wrote in an opinion piece in Reformanewspaper.

It is possible that The Crime of Father Amaro may become a crossroads for an evolving Mexican society. There is no doubt that coverage of the sexual abuse scandal has worked to desanctify the priesthood and fueled the debate about celibacy, among other issues relating to the moral teachings of the church, that hundreds of lay Catholic groups have been demanding for years.

Progressive Catholics called for more reflection on the institutional and personal paradoxes that constantly confront us as Catholics. The movie showed us the many faces of our church: heterogeneous, with a deep compromise and hypocritical at the same time. Understandably, the media focused its attention on the limited number of Catholics who decried the film. However it will add impetus to a debate that supports clerical reform and a more democratic and tolerant church, and promotes the opportunity we have to disseminate a more respectful version of the evangelical message.

There is, however, something deeply worrying about the uproar over El Crimen Del Padre Amaro: it was more important to our bishops than an official report on 65 million poor people living in Mexico that came out at the same time. That alone revealed that what is most offensive inside the Catholic church today is its inherent double standards about human rights, truth and tolerance.

María Consuelo Mejía is director of Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir in Mexico and Miriam Ruiz Mendoza is a journalist working with the press agency CIMAC.
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