His Collar Is Too Tight

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He's seductively handsome, shyly (perhaps slyly) sexy. He is liberal-minded in the best and broadest sense of the term. He is ambitious to rise within his powerful if sclerotic organization — mostly because he wants to get its blood flowing. His only problem is that the bureaucracy to which he has committed his life is Mexico's Roman Catholic Church, and Padre Amaro (Gael Garcia Bernal, most recently in Y Tu Mama Tambien) is a priest whose largest doctrinal doubts center on celibacy.

You can doubtless imagine the trouble he gets into when he spies the beautiful, teenage Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancon), a passionately religious virgin and thus rather more inclined to yield to the priest than to her secular swain. You can also perhaps imagine the outrage that is greeting the release of El Crimen del Padre Amaro in the U.S.

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Most of the uproar stems from a conservative organization called the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which previously assailed Disney's Miramax division, among other studios, for films it deemed blasphemous. Whether it will succeed with the utterly independent Samuel Goldwyn Films is more problematic. So far, the league has generated a lot of news stories and a letter-writing campaign that has brought 5,000 letters to Goldwyn.

The tactics are typical of such outbursts in two respects: most of the league's leaders have not seen the film, and they are creating the kind of free publicity small-scale art-house movies can only dream about. In Mexico the controversy has made Padre Amaro the biggest box-office hit in the country's history; it is Mexico's official entry for the foreign-language Academy Award.

Meyer Gottlieb, Goldwyn's president, knew he was touching a hot button when he acquired the film in the midst of the sex scandals that have lately rocked the church. "But I didn't buy it for the controversy," he says. "It's a universal story, one that repeats itself all the time, in every culture, every religion." Gottlieb is certain, too, that Bernal is an actor on the brink of international stardom, and he wanted to be associated with a revitalized Mexican film industry.

For once, you can believe a beleaguered distributor. The affair between Padre Amaro and Amelia ends in trag-edy. But before that occurs, director Carlos Carrera's handsome film offers a richly detailed portrait of a church not so much corrupt as morally lazy after centuries in command of an overwhelmingly Catholic country. Bland bishops, older priests turning a blind eye to drug lords, churchly displeasure with the film's most heroic figure — a people's padre — are shown with cool objectivity. Exit polls in Mexico found that 70% of audiences approved of the movie.

This reflects, of course, the long-standing anticlerical tradition of many Catholic countries. Indeed, the movie is an update of an 1875 Portuguese novel that is solidly in that tradition. As such, it deserves to be judged on its considerable merits as a compassionate critique — not of a belief system but of the flawed and all-too-human institution that serves it in the real, temptation-ridden world.