Anyone wondering what Marisa Tomei has been up to lately need look no further
than the light but spicy romantic/spiritual comedy The Guru. I remember quite
vividly my first notice of this talented actress when I developed a small TV
crush on her while she was on The Cosby Show spinoff A Different World for one
season (1987-1988). I was distraught when she did not return the following year
(creative differences, I think), and when she won her Oscar for My Cousin Vinny,
I remember distinctly saying to myself, “Take that, Lisa Bonet! What are
you doing now?” Since then, I have wondered why Tomei hasn’t done
more with her Oscar momentum, excepting last year’s nominated turn in
In the Bedroom. Anyway, her appearance in this film represents another unusual
move for the otherwise Oscar-able actress: third banana behind the unknown Jimi
Mistry and the talentless Heather Graham.
Mistry plays Ramu Gupta, a dance instructor in India. (I take it that India is behind the times in this regard. Our first look at Ramu catches him in the middle of teaching the Macarena to middle-aged Indian ladies. Remember doing the Macarena? Yes, you do.) Ramu decides that his future is as an American movie star, having preferred the subtitled Grease to the pageantry of his native-made films. So, setting out to be the Indian John Travolta, he flies to New York (shouldn’t he have gone to L.A.?) where he lands a job as a waiter in an Indian restaurant. His cinematic aspirations find him accidentally auditioning for an ethnic-themed porno movie, where he meets Sharonna (Graham), the porn queen next door, whose fiancé doesn’t know that she’s not a Catholic school substitute teacher. Their onscreen festivities are subverted by Ramu’s … how shall we say? … performance anxiety, but Sharonna’s neospiritual advice on how to forget that porno sex occurs in front of directors, bored technicians, and coffee-swilling stagehands comes in handy later on: When a rich socialite (bizarro Christine Baranski) throws a swami-themed party for her spiritually impressionable daughter Lexi (Tomei), the guru drinks himself out of commission and Ramu must don the turban to keep the party going. Sharonna’s God-Is-Sex mantras are just what New York’s high society wants to hear to beat the too-rich-to-live doldrums. Ramu becomes an instant sensation, rocketing to a packed Broadway house, TV appearances, and private sessions in the living rooms of sex-starved old ladies. Ramu also finds himself romantically entwined with both the attention-starved Lexi and with Sharonna, who trades ethereal sex tips for money to buy an elaborate (and fabulously garish) wedding cake. But Ramu has no true wisdom when it comes to life or sex, and it becomes progressively difficult to conceal his double lives. Lexi thinks he is a spiritual prophet, while Sharonna thinks she’s tutoring him to overcome stage fright — not lead the masses into coital enlightenment. I think I can safely say that we’ve all been in that pickle before.
The Guru is a lot of fun. Jimi Mistry is adorable. Few actors can pull off the bashful sexiness he exudes when not being able to get it up for the camera, and I can’t think of any that could Macarena with his assured but oblivious charm. He balances the film’s giddy musical numbers (oh, yes, there are musical numbers — too few, but they are wonderful) with some gravity when considering his deceptive new career and the woman he truly loves. Graham does just fine with the light demands of a script that asks little more of her than wedding-cake angst and shallow porn wisdom. But she’s pretty and pulls the Britney Spears-ish schoolgirl/vixen thing off rather well. Tomei provides her flatly written role with a third dimension but gets lost in the shuffle of more interesting characters. Included would be Michael McKean, who takes the otherwise thankless role of fatherly porn director and strikes gold with his scant dialogue about how the adult film industry works and his expansive vocabulary for genitals. The whole film is like McKean’s role — better than it deserves to be and all in uneven good fun. Never enlightened, but like Guru Ramu, always reaching for it. — Bo List
An Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, El Crimen Del Padre Amaro surpassed Y Tu Mamá También as the highest-grossing homegrown film in Mexican history and engendered even more controversy. Ostensibly an anticlerical melodrama, Mexican president Vincente Fox ordered the film’s release delayed until after the pope’s visit. The Catholic League in the U.S. has denounced the film for its “vicious” portrayal of priests, while a Catholic leader in Mexico has praised it as a needed “wake-up call.”
Like the other two Mexican films that have played Memphis recently, Amores Perros and Y Tu Mamá También, Padre Amaro stars Gael García Bernal. Here the charismatic young star is a recently ordained priest with connections to the bishop overseeing the Catholic church in Mexico. He is sent, in his first assignment, to the small village of Los Reyes to work under, and perhaps spy on, an aging cleric, Padre Benito (Sancho Gracia).
In Los Reyes, the naive Amaro gets a firsthand look at the realpolitik of the church: Benito is financing a new hospital by laundering money for a local drug lord, an action he justifies as “turning bad money into good.” Despite his vow of celibacy, he is also having a long-running affair with restaurant proprietor Augustina Sanjuanera (Angélica Aragón). Amaro also meets Padre Natalio (Damián Alcázar), a priest overseeing a congregation of rural peasants, who is accused of supporting the guerrillas waging war against the very drug lords Benito is working with.
At first, Amaro appears as something of a moral beacon, an unsoiled, straight-from-the-seminary idealist set down amid an environment of clerical corruption. But soon it’s clear that Amaro’s piety is neither incorruptible nor even all that commendable. Ambitious about his future within the church, Amaro shows little reluctance in accepting the bishop’s task of ruining the career of a young journalist who has exposed Benito. Amaro, who has made clear he took the vow of chastity only because he had to, also begins to romance comely young parishioner Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancón), taking her to an out-of-the-way place for “religious instruction.”
Some moments here, as when Amelia tells Padre Amaro in confession that she masturbates … while thinking of Jesus, or later, when Amaro wraps her in a cloak given as a gift to the church and tells her, in a post-coital moment, that she’s “as beautiful as the Virgin,” echo the work of great Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, particularly something like his Viridiana, about the corruption of a young nun. Padre Amaro is serious and straightforward in its critique of the church, whereas Buñuel was gleefully, wildly heretical.
Padre Amaro is much less exciting formally than Amores Perros or Y Tu Mamá También. The direction (by Carlos Carrera) and camerawork, by contrast, is workmanlike and conventional but solid enough to support the well-acted, engrossing story. El Crimen Del Padre Amaro is richly character-driven and prompts many questions in regard to the church, particularly about the potential hypocrisy of its decrees on celibacy and abortion and about its financial and political entanglements.
But the biggest question of all might derive from the film’s title: Just what is the crime of Padre Amaro? In the end, Padres Benito and Natalio are seen in a far more accepting light: They compromise church doctrine for their version of what’s right. Padre Amaro betrays the church as well, but it’s his betrayal of Amelia, his willingness to sacrifice the truth of their relationship for his career, that is the greatest sin in the film’s eyes. And that, despite the difference in tone, may be what unites Carrera’s film with those of Buñuel: Carrera may ultimately respect the church more than Buñuel did but readily chooses the personal demands of this world over the church’s instructions for the next one.
— Chris Herrington