INTERVIEW: Padre, Padre: Mexico's Native Son Gael Garcia Bernal Stars in the Controversial "The Crime of Father Amaro"
by Erin Torneo/indieWIRE
(indieWIRE: 11.12.02) -- Since first discovering him in "Amores Perros," I've gotten a chance to speak with actor Gael Garcia Bernal every year at almost exactly the same time. It's become something of an anniversary, where I feel more like I'm catching up with an old friend than conducting an interview. And each time there's always more to catch up on. In three short years, Bernal's career has exploded, but he clearly remains committed to filmmaking in his native Mexico.
Last year, Alfonso Cuaron's sexy coming-of-age story "Y Tu Mama Tambien," broke box office records south of the border and poised Bernal for crossover success. Earlier this year, Carlos Carrera's "The Crime of Father Amaro" bested that record, in part because of its controversial storyline, and in part because of Bernal, its marquee star. "Father Amaro" is an update of "Eca de Queiros" 1875 novel, and like the recent spate of films dealing with the righteousness and hypocrisy in the Catholic Church ("The Magdalene Sisters," "Amen"), is newly resonant in light of the abuse scandals. Bernal plays a recently-ordained young priest sent to work in a village where he learns that the senior padres are caught up in some dirty business. One has been having an affair for years while building a clinic from a drug lord's money, and another is supporting guerrillas. Father Amaro's idealism is quickly compromised when he is seduced not only by a 16-year-old parishioner treading the line between spiritual ecstasy and carnal fervor, but by the power of the cloak as well.
Bernal was recently in town for a quick weekend (coinciding with Mexico's independence day celebrations, more on that later) to do press before jetting off to South America to begin filming a Walter Salles film. And after that, he'll get to work on Pedro Almodovar's next film "Bad Education." So it's fitting that indieWIRE's Erin Torneo spent the morning running around town with Bernal, from hotel lobby to cross-town car to elevator to Martin Scorsese's office, where the hot young actor discussed his latest role as a priest in Mexico's Oscar-hopeful "The Crime of Father Amaro," and the relationship between faith and fear. Samuel Goldwyn/IDP releases the film on Friday.
indieWIRE: I read some of the headlines regarding the controversy surrounding the film in Mexico. But what was it actually like? Were there protests?
Gael Garcia Bernal: No, but there were protests against the people who were trying to prohibit the film.
iW: Who was trying to prohibit the film? Was that like the Catholic League or something?
Bernal: It was some members of the church. They call themselves "representatives of society," but I don't think they are representatives. I don't think democratically they represent a faction of society. In Mexico, we think of ourselves as a conservative country, until we realize that it's not because we're not. Like the United States is puritan, at least structurally, but the people aren't.
iW: How would describe the protests that happened in Mexico with this film?
Bernal: What happened in Mexico was a bit obscene. I was putting myself on the spot to defend a film that people hadn't seen. The people who were protesting against the film hadn't seen it, so there was no basic point of discussion, no common denominator. It was a very stupid confrontation. On the other hand, though, I'm glad that films can create controversy and films can actually have more headlines than reality.
iW: Were you raised Catholic?
Bernal: Kind of. I think I'm culturally Catholic, but spiritually agnostic. Was it Bunuel that said, "Thank God I'm an atheist?" [laughs]
iW: Did you have any qualms about taking the role because of how Catholicism and priesthood were going to be portrayed?
Bernal: The approach that excited me about this film was the question of whether fear is the same as love of God. Because if it's the same thing, it can get very confusing, especially with this character. Is it fear or love of God that makes him do what he does? Nowadays the polarities are so pronounced. The good guys, the bad guys, the rich, the poor, it's so imposed as well. Where does faith reside in that? Is it compatible with love or is it the same thing? Or is it a mix? Or is there a middle point? Does faith reside in your body or in an object as well?
iW: How did you prepare for this role? Did you spend time in churches watching Mass or with any priests? Or did you just take it from what you had known growing up?
Bernal: Psychologically, it came from when I was little. For the practicalities of things, I went to Mass. There was less time to contemplate. Less time to practice.
iW: So there were no priests in particular that you spent time with?
Bernal: There were a few, but they asked me not to mention their names.
iW: Yeah, of course. Did you tell them what the film was about?
Bernal: The most intelligent position for the Church for this film would be to support it, but they didn't. Only some people did.
iW: Some people within the Church?
Bernal: Yeah they supported the film. The people that I met were really nice people. They have a strong vocation to help people regardless of how intense their religiosity is. A vocation of really helping and doing good.
iW: Did they feel it was a realistic portrayal of some of the issues?
Bernal: Oh yeah. They were really supportive of the film. They like it as well. The man who wrote the film [Vicente Lenero] is a very strong Catholic.
iW: When the film was being made, was that coinciding with the abuse scandal erupting within the U.S. Catholic Church? Were you aware of all that?
Bernal: It was made last year, the end of last year. I was aware of that going on in the U.S. and everywhere else in the world. And whatever happens here [in the U.S.] is a big thing in the rest of the world.
iW: What do you think is the biggest issue facing the Catholic Church today? For me, I was raised Catholic and feel it's just an archaic, inflexible set of dogma. Besides the basic Christian tenants, caring for other people and generally trying to do good, I don't think it has any resonance with what is actually happening between people in this time and place. What do you think?
Bernal: I don't know. If abstract concepts die, they die. They served history in a good or bad way, but if they finish, they finish. There's nothing valuable about keeping it as a folkloric kind of thing. Well, maybe there is. I mean in Mexico I celebrate Catholic holidays. It's just to have fun and I think that that's a very cool aspect of Catholic religion. But that double moral of Catholicism is quite interesting, it leads to a lot of irony. Countries like Brazil, Mexico or Spain, the populations perhaps enjoys the most freedom in the world, sexually as well. What the Catholic Church offers nowadays in that kind of place is something for everyone to criticize. I love to criticize the Catholic religion.
iW: Because it has no capacity for self-criticism?
Bernal: Yeah, the whole issue about this film is basically that. Maybe the film is not that good. Maybe we're just talking about an event. That's what made everything feel a bit obscene because it wasn't about the actual film.
iW: You talked before about whether fear or love of God drive some of your characters actions. What do you think it is at the end? Because at the end it seems to me it's more about power and ambition, it almost doesn't have anything to do with God at that point.
Bernal: That could be a direct metaphor or direct analogy to what's happening right now with power and ambition. The people that see their power being shuttered are using God as their shield or as a weapon as well. And both sides see God as representing their side.
iW: Like President Bush?
Bernal: Yeah, him and the good guys and the bad guys. That concept is so archaic. Every little child has learned that since they were young. I especially see that in Western culture a lot. I see in the United States from rich to poor: from being poor you become rich, from being a bad guy you can become a good guy. Instead of seeing the whole side of things. It's weird. They use God on their side to do things. And then they hide themselves and protect themselves with it, like in the film.