Harry Potter and his cottage industry of goblins, gremlins and flying broomsticks is back in time to drain every 10-year-old’s holiday allowance from here to Honolulu. Do they still care? Judging from the preview audience of mesmerized moppets with whom I saw Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets , they do indeed, and then some.
The second installment is darker and more schematic than the first, and in the opinion of this aging Muggle, not as much fun. With characters and setting already established, director Chris Columbus and writer Steven Kloves cut through the exposition and hurl you right into the narrative. As Harry (saucer-eyed Daniel Radcliffe) returns to his second year at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, something evil is slithering through the rusty old drain pipes, turning the students into petrified statues of stone and threatening to close the place down. But first there’s some funny business about the ghastly summer Harry has just spent with his horrible relatives, the Dursleys, who have nailed his windows shut. Harry is rescued by his redheaded pal Ron (Rupert Grint), but they can’t get through the magic gate at London station, so they miss the Hogwarts express train and are forced to travel back to school in a flying Ford Anglia. Incurring the wrath of sourpuss potions professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) when their car crashes into the academy’s centuries-old Whomping Willow tree, the young wizards are saved from expulsion once again by kindly old headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris, in his final role). The film settles down to business as usual at Gryffindor dorm, where eccentric witch Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith) conducts classes in how to change small animals into water goblets. The old gang is back, and there are a few new additions, notably the malevolent Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs), the father of Harry’s arch-nemesis, Draco, and a ruthless villain with a snake-headed cane and waist-length blond hair, and a dashing new professor named Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh), who teaches Defense Against the Dark Arts classes. Gilderoy is a vain, pompous celebrity wizard who spends a lot of time answering his fan mail and autographing copies of his autobiography, Magical Me .
This setup is amusing and too lengthy for its own good, but when the film gains momentum, the horrors that await the students come fast and furious. Harry hears evil voices. Warnings appear on the wall written in blood-something about a chamber of secrets hidden for a thousand years in which a hideous monster lies dormant. Somebody has unlocked the chamber, and the whole school turns against Harry, thinking he’s the descendant of the wizard who put the curse on the place. Determined to find the chamber, prove them wrong, save his adorable girlfriend Hermione (Emma Watson) from death and free the school from the curse, Harry must concoct a slug repellent made from screaming mandrake plants and face Aragog, a humongous tarantula in the Dark Forest who controls an army of flesh-eating spiders. The plot leads to the master villain Lord Voldemort, the murderous wizard responsible for the trademark scar on Harry’s forehead. Voldemort was defeated by Harry in the first installment, but now he’s trying for a comeback through the blank pages of a secret diary discovered by the dastardly Malfoy. By the time Harry encounters the monster in the bowels of Hogwarts, the big showdown seems almost anachronistic, and the foaming, fanged reptile will hardly raise a hair on the head of anyone who has already seen the Alien movies. Most of the kids around me covered their eyes and screamed in horror, but I found Eminem in 8 Mile twice as scary.
None of this makes one bit of sense, but children don’t ask questions and take everything at face value, anyway. They won’t give a fig that Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is so convoluted that it loses coherence fast. What do they care if there are too many plot twists, too many extraneous diversions for no other purpose than to pad the running time, and so many villains at cross purposes that I couldn’t tell them apart? The kids have read the books, studied the symbolism and know what’s coming next. In my opinion, the movie will scare the living daylights out of young children and confuse the hell out of grownups. At nearly three hours, this one is also something of an endurance test. Still, the special effects and magic tricks are clever, the thrills are undeniable, the characters invented by J. K. Rowling are as charming as they are bizarre, and repeat business is guaranteed. (A word of advice to the filmmakers who are busily counting their percentages: Make future Harry Potters quickly, before the young cast members outgrow their roles. In one scene, the cherubic little Harry raises his trouser cuffs. He’s already got very hairy legs.)
If I enjoyed this follow-up to the first Harry Potter less than I did the original, blame it on my loss of innocence. In all fairness, I must report that the children of varying ages in my audience never coughed, fidgeted or romped up and down the aisles for bathroom breaks. If I was baffled and bored, they were enthralled and enchanted-which is exactly what the Harry Potter market aims for. I surrender cheerfully. Movies for 10-year-old audiences should really be reviewed by 10-year-old critics.
Sharp Mexican Morality Tale
For adult fare, I prefer Carlos Carrera’s Mexican film The Crime of Father Amaro , a sharp morality tale about a priest who breaks his vows of celibacy for the love of a beautiful girl that will probably raise the hackles of the Catholic Church to new heights of indignation. When it opened in Mexico, it was picketed and denounced by irate Catholics in the same way Miramax’s forthcoming release of the brilliant Irish film The Magdalene Sisters is being protested here. That didn’t stop it from becoming the highest-grossing Mexican film in history. Such apoplexy not only seems pointless in light of all the religious scandals that are making headlines daily, but also laughably belated, considering that it’s based on a famous book by Portuguese novelist José Maria Eça de Queiroz first published in 1875. Don’t these people ever get tired of slugging it out in public over matters of faith that should remain private?
To the small Mexican town of Los Reyes comes a handsome, newly ordained 24-year-old priest. Father Amaro (played by Gael García Bernal, the hottest actor in Mexico) is a favorite of the bishop and will soon be going to Rome for more devout study, but first he must get some field experience. In Los Reyes, he is assigned to an older, cynical priest, Father Benito, who has long been involved in money-laundering for mobsters and forbidden sex with women. Father Amaro watches the corruption surrounding him with shocked silence-but when he meets the virginal, extremely religious Amelia, the 16-year-old daughter of Father Benito’s longtime lover, his own weaknesses as a man slowly build. As the unsophisticated priest succumbs to Amelia’s innocence and sweetness, the groundwork is laid for the film’s central theme-the difficulty of forced celibacy for the clergy. As Father Amaro struggles with the church’s demands and his own inner passions, Mr. Carrera examines other complex relationships-the ecumenical politics of the church, and issues of power and economic depression in the poor regions of a country where the peasants are often victimized by the very priests they trust for spiritual guidance. The church, Mr. Carrera suggests, doesn’t always serve the faithful and often looks the other way when it suits a purpose. In the story, a good priest is condemned and excommunicated for helping local guerrillas, while a bad priest is revered despite his sexual proclivities and his close relationship with the parish drug lord. Father Amaro abhors this kind of duplicity, yet remains closeted when it comes to his own clandestine affair with the impressionable Amelia. It’s important to point out that the film doesn’t denounce the church; it merely serves as a wake-up call for the human rights of the men who serve it. Father Amaro is no saint: He’s a human being, subject to the same human temptations as everyone else. The film doesn’t condone his fallibility. When his lust leads to Amelia’s pregnancy and abortion, he pays for his “crime,” with tragic consequences for everyone involved. Ironically, his faith is still sacred, and with the help of the bishop, his ambitious religious career continues to flourish.
The story is timeless, but when adapted to the modern age, it makes for a wrenching film-never preachy or sentimental, and refreshingly non-judgmental about the fundamental and contradictory issues it raises. At a time when the priesthood is under constant attack and the scalding reverberations of clerical sin are being felt all the way to the Vatican, it’s also a work of intense relevance. While Mr. Carrera creates a stunningly real, three-dimensional study of souls in torment, he also displays a profound sense of compassion amid the misery, chaos and seeming expendability of life that affirms the humanity of his characters.
The performances are all vivid and sincere, but it’s the talent and charisma of the film’s star that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Mr. Bernal, the sensation of last year’s surprise hit Y Tu Mamá También , is the sexiest Mexican import since Dolores Del Rio, and the screen’s most sensitive priest since Montgomery Clift in Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess . In addition to his devastating good looks, the boy can really act. With Mr. Bernal’s swimming-pool eyes and an almost ethereal sensuality, his naturalistic portrayal of the conflicted Father Amaro is haunting, hypnotic, vulnerable and deeply affecting. Here is an actor obviously attracted to controversial assignments. After playing the carnal priest in this film, he will next star in Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education , playing a young man sexually abused by a priest in Spain. If this isn’t an international star in the making, my name is Donald Duck.
One final note: According to an alarming press release from the folks publicizing the film’s American opening, the conservative element in the Catholic Church in Mexico has been pleading with President Vincente Fox to censor The Crime of Father Amaro as a “sacrilege,” appealing to his stature as Mexico’s most openly Catholic president. Mr. Fox’s government not only refused the boycott, it also selected The Crime of Father Amaro to represent Mexico in the contention for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award. In these repressive times, that’s the kind of progressive thinking in the war against hypocrisy the world could use a lot more of.