By STEPHEN HOLDEN New York Times
Published: November 15, 2002, Friday
''El Crimen del Padre Amaro,'' a suds-filled political melodrama that bashes the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico with a contempt that verges on hysteria, could be accused of many things, but timidity is not one of them. The film, an updated adaptation of a late 19th-century novel by the Portuguese author José Maria Eça de Queiroz, tells the story of Father Amaro (Gael García Bernal), a dreamy-eyed 24-year-old cleric dispatched to a small parish church in Los Reyes to assist its aging priest, Father Benito (Sancho Gracia). If Father Amaro proves a cooperative partner, it is a given that he will one day take over the parish.
Arriving in town, Father Amaro hasn't the foggiest inkling of the political rats' nest that's about to consume him. As played by Mr. Bernal, who has become an international star with ''Amores Perros'' and ''Y Tu Mamá También,'' the young priest projects the dewy naïveté of a Robby Benson character from the 1970's. Mr. Bernal's physical resemblance to that former icon of milk-and-cookies wholesomeness is so pronounced that you half expect the movie to turn into ''Ice Castles'' or ''Ode to Billy Joe,'' but of course it doesn't.
What Father Amaro discovers is a corrupt church bureaucracy collaborating with local drug lords who donate huge sums of money to favorite church charities. In return the church hierarchy turns a blind eye to their activities, which include the violent appropriation of land occupied by poor rural farmers. Any priest who seriously dissents from the bishop's party line risks excommunication.
With one heroic exception the procession of church officials parading through the film are an unsavory lot who justify their money laundering by smugly pointing to the good works to which the funds are applied. Running the diocese is an obese, porcine-eyed bishop (Ernesto Gómez Cruz), whom the movie views with a palpable physical loathing.
The scandalous nature of ''El Crimen del Padre Amaro,'' directed by Carlos Carrera from a screenplay by Vicente Leñero, has helped make it the highest-grossing home-grown film in Mexican history. But what probably accounts for its popularity isn't its indictment of money laundering and conspiracy but its prurient, nostril-flaring portrait of a handsome young clergyman violating his vows of celibacy.
Father Benito, we soon discover, has been having a secret longtime affair with his housekeeper Sanjuanera (Angélica Aragón). And before long, Father Amaro has plunged into a relationship with Sanjuanera's 16-year-old daughter, Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancón). Under the facade of his giving Amelia religious instruction to become a nun, he meets her in an out-of-the-way shack inhabited by the mentally retarded daughter of one of Father Benito's assistants. And in intermingling the lovers' rapturous cries with the retarded girl's spasmodic groans from the adjoining room, the movie has flashes of grotesque satiric humor.
The film's most blasphemous notion is that spiritual passion is essentially repressed lust. Upon Father Amaro's arrival in Los Reyes, the local women go weak in the knees in his presence and shamelessly make goo-goo eyes, which he pretends to ignore. Amelia is a beautiful, intensely devout girl who goes into a hormonal swoon whenever Father Amaro appears.
Their affair is presented as a study of two self-deluded fools who use religious iconography as an erotic stimulant, and their pillow talk is inflected with sanctimonious, quasi-religious mumbo jumbo. After presenting Amelia with a robe that makes her look like the Virgin Mary, Father Amaro tremblingly embraces her as if he were worshiping a statue.
Before becoming involved with Father Amaro, Amelia was the girlfriend of a young nonreligious journalist who is persuaded to write a newspaper exposé of church corruption. But the diocese, mustering its political clout, forces the paper to print a front-page retraction.
The film's most disconcerting element is its confusing mixture of satire and melodrama. One minute the movie appears to be making nasty fun of Father Amaro and Amelia's affair. The next it is wallowing in their passion as shamelessly as any heavy-breathing Latin American soap opera. As the story accelerates, Father Amaro's troubles multiply along with the lies he is forced to tell, and the movie builds to a strident, intentionally shocking finale that finds the young priest morally bankrupt.
But Father Amaro's spiritual downfall involves very little internal struggle. Although we are supposed to assume that he is a naïve idealist at the beginning of the film, his acquiescence to the corrupt status quo is accompanied by only the faintest protestations. Instead of emerging as a hero with a tragic flaw, he comes across as a fuzzy-minded weakling who is all flaws.
At a certain point
Amelia urges Father Amaro to quit the priesthood and leave town with
her. He replies that he wants to remain in the church because as a
priest he can help others, but we don't see him offering much help to
anyone. Terrible things happen in ''El Crimen del Padre Amaro,'' which
opens today in Manhattan, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Dallas, but
the movie ultimately has no tragic dimension. It's just the lurid
portrait of a man who'll do anything to keep his job.
"The exotic character Carmen Miranda
carefully created and lived with during her Hollywood career has been
parodied by many entertainers -- mostly men -- with a fascination
matched by few other American pop-culture icons. What most people don't
know, however, is that before she became famous in America by wearing
fruit hats, Carmen was already an established, abundantly talented
entertainer in Brazil. The character she later became -- the costumed,
heavily accented, "I seeng you song from Brazeel" parody of women from
the Bahía region -- created a rift between her and the Brazilian
press, who claimed she packaged her talent to cater to the American
public. Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business, a truly engaging
documentary sensitively assembled by Helena Solberg, reveals this and
more about the `Brazilian Bombshell.' Using archival footage,
re-creations of key events -- featuring female impersonator Erick
Barreto as Carmen -- and interviews with the people closest to Carmen's
life, Solberg provides a little-seen perspective on Carmen's
pre-Hollywood career" (Ramiro Puerta, Toronto I.F.F.). "Complex and
probing . . . a fascinating account of the onetime megastar as not only
a torn and tragic person and underrated artist, but also as the
eventual prisoner of a giddy image reflecting various intertwined
political and cultural agendas . . . As enjoyable as it is
thought-provoking" (Godfrey Cheshire, Variety). Colour and B&W,
35mm, in Portuguese with English subtitles. 91 mins. From A
Retrospective of Brazilian Cinema.
in Vancouver BC
City of God Like
cinematic dynamite, City of God
lights a fuse under its squalid Brazilian ghetto, and we're a captive
audience to its violent explosion. The titular favela is home to a
seething army of impoverished children who grow, over the film's
ambitious 20-year timeframe, into cutthroat killers, drug lords, and
feral survivors. In the vortex of this maelstrom is L'il Z (Leandro
Firmino da Hora--like most of the cast, a nonprofessional actor),
self-appointed king of the dealers, determined to eliminate all
competition at the expense of his corrupted soul. With enough visual
vitality and provocative substance to spark heated debate (and
box-office gold) in Brazil, codirectors Fernando Meirelles and
Kátia Lund tackle their subject head on, creating a portrait of
youthful anarchy so appalling--and so authentically immediate--that
City of God prompted reforms in socioeconomic policy. It's a bracing
feat of stylistic audacity, borrowing from a dozen other films to form
its own unique identity. You'll flinch, but you can't look away. --Jeff
Four Days in
September. In 1969,
the democratically elected government
of Brazil was toppled and a military dictatorship took its place. The
junta ruled through terror and intimidation, torturing political
enemies, controlling the press, and severely curtailing freedoms. A
group of Che Guevara-worshipping Marxist radicals (the MR-8) plotted to
kidnap an American diplomat (Alan Arkin) to force the government to
meet their demands. The college radicals hooked up with two senior
revolutionaries, an avuncular veteran of the Spanish Civil War and a
cold, ruthlessly intense younger man who becomes their commandant. What
could easily have become an overwrought drama is instead played out in
understatement. The middle-class radicals falter more than once when it
looks like they will indeed have to execute their captive; their
counterparts in the government's secret police grapple with their
consciences when it comes to torture and terror. Arkin is excellent as
Charles Elbrick, the diplomat; his conversations with his abductors
bring out his humanity as the deadline draws near. Overall, the
film--which receieved a Best Foreign-Language Oscar nomination--has a
sense of tension and claustrophobia that is as oppressive as the clammy
Rio de Janeiro humidity. This is a thoughtful political drama with
emotional depth, well-drawn characters, and excellent direction.
(Incidentally, the radicals' commitment paid off in 1979, when Brazil's
democracy was restored and all political prisoners were given amnesty.)
Stuart Copeland provides the excellent score, along with '60s-period
bossa nova music. --Jerry
Orpheus When it
comes to Brazilian film versions of Greek tragic myths, I'd have to say
that Black Orpheus comes out on top. An odd retelling of the myth
of Orpheus & Eurydice (you remember: she was kidnapped by Hades, he
had to save her but if he looked back on the way out, he would lose her
forever... and he looks), this time Orpheus (aka Orfeu, Breno Mello) is
a Rio de Janeiro laborer who loves his guitar, has an overbearing
girlfriend, and falls in love with the visiting Eurydice (Marpessa
Dawn) at first sight. After a drawn-out (and a bit padded) love
triangle bit, she is kidnapped by Death himself (actually a weird guy
in a funky bodysuit), and sure enough, Orpheus heads to the rescue.
This probably isn't the way you remembered the tale -- set amidst sweaty dancers at Carnaval -- but it's certainly, well, different.
Aka Orfeu Negro. Christopher Null on Film Critic.com
Marcel Camus's 1959 update of the Greek myth features an all-black cast and a story set in the frenetic energy of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. Orpheus, a trolley car conductor and superb samba dancer, is engaged to Mira but in love with Eurydice. For his change of heart, Orpheus and his new doomed lover are pursued by a vengeful Mira and a determined Death through the feverish Carnival night. Camus at once demystifies and remystifies the old story, shifting not only its location but its tone and context, forcing a reevaluation of the legend as a more passionate, pulsing, sensual experience. The film is really one-of-a-kind, an absolute whirl that barely needs words. --Tom Keogh
1960 Academy Award Winner and winner of the Palme d'Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, Marcel Camus' Black Orpheus retells the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice against the madness of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. With its magnificent color photography and lively soundtrack, this film brought the infectious bossa nova beat to the United States. Criterion is proud to present the extended international version of Black Orpheus in a gorgeous new transfer. from Amazon.com
Plot Synopsis: Palmares is a 17th-century quilombo, a settlement of escaped slaves in northeast Brazil. In 1650, plantation slaves revolt and head for the mountains where they find others led by the aged seer, Acotirene. She anoints one who becomes Ganga Zumba, a legendary king. For years, his warriors hold off Portuguese raiders; then he agrees to leave the mountains in exchange for reservation land and peace. It's a mistake. Zumbi, a warrior whose mother was killed by Portuguese and who spent 15 years with the Whites, stays in the mountains to lead Palmares. In 1694, the Portuguese import a ruthless captain from São Paulo to lead an assault on the free Blacks. Can Zumbi keep Palmares free?
I came across 'quilombo' after I had read
on the internet about the 'palenques' or 'maroons', which were
communities made of escaped slaves in Latin America's colonial era. In
Brazil, the palenques were known as quilombos, and the most famous to
have existed - and featured on the movie -- was that of Palmares in
northeastern Brazil. Although the director injects a big dose of magic
realism to the movie, it still gives a fairly accurate picture of the
times - mid-late 17th century. The hellish conditions endured by slaves
brought from western Africa, the Portuguese-Dutch wars, and the human
will to break free combined to create the conditions for a slave exodus
and a formation of an exile, small republic to form in a remote
hillside in the forests.
The movie centers around two characters that have long lived in the collective memory of Afro-Brazilians for hundreds of years: Ganga Zumba and Zumbi, the former the spiritual leader of his new found nation, the latter the warrior who would resist fiercely the devastating assault unleashed upon the quilombo and its dwellers by a well-armed expeditionary force made up of portuguese troops, colonial regulars and Sao Paolo mercenaries.
'Quilombo' tells a story of defiance, courage, and the fighting spirit of formerly oppressed peoples who chose to die for their freedom rather than returning alive in chains to hell on earth, namely the sugar plantations of Pernambuco province. Palmares defied the Portuguese empire for almost a century, and represented a threat to the province's plantations because they were often raided and the slaves were freed.
For an attempt to publicize this epic era in Brazilian history, Diegues does a good job by putting together historical facts and magic realism. Though I would have loved to see more emphasis on the economic aspects of the quilombo. It is said that 'Palmares' had developed its own business schemes with free-lance merchants and local ranchers as well, creating also not only the threat of slave mutiny but the threat that presented the diversity in crops around the quilombo, which contrasted sharply with the monocultures, thus the economic interests of plantations.
All in all, 'Quilombo' is dramatic, thrilling, and beautiful. For those interested on history about maroon communities and slave resistance in the New World I truly encourage to get this movie. - Raquelita
Dona Flor and her
By the 1970s, after a series of right-wing coups, the political climate in Brazil had eased a bit and restrictions on sexuality in the movies had relaxed. The result: frothy erotic comedies like Bruno Barreto's Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1977). In the picturesque port city of Bahia, Flor, a lovely young woman (Sonia Braga), marries the wastrel Vadinho (José Wilker), a compulsive wencher who beats her. His one redeeming quality is that he's a tiger in the sack. After Vadinho drops dead, Flor accepts the proposal of a pharmacist, who's kind but dull in and out of bed. Her yearning for her randy first husband causes his ghost to materialize. Ectoplasmic Vadinho makes it clear that there is sex after death, and since he's visible only to her, conditions are right for a bizarre ménage à trois. A variation on Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, Dona Flor was a huge hit at home and abroad. In its best moments, it has the qualities of a ribald folk tale. But it's a slight work, slackly directed, that gets a needed boost from Braga's endearing performance and Chico Buarque's intoxicating score. ELLIOTT STEIN - the Village Voice