Just because a film is controversial, that doesn't automatically make it a quality production. Case in point: "El Crimen del Padre Amaro (The Crime of Father Amaro)."

This Mexican drama has gotten a lot of talk because of its scathing accusations against the Catholic Church — which may have helped garner it a Golden Globe nomination and a spot on more than a couple Top 10 lists.

In its defense, the movie isn't the blatant case of "Catholic-bashing" that some of its more outspoken critics have suggested. But it's certainly not Top 10 material either.

In fact, this rather unfocused, all-over-the-map movie would be a lot better if it pared down its plots and characters to a few rather than dozens . . . or if it were subtler . . . or if it had a sense of humor.

The title character (Gael Garcia Bernal) is a headstrong, 24-year-old priest who's been sent to Los Reyes, where he's supposed to aid aging parish priest Father Benito (Sancho Gracia).

At first, Father Benito is happy to guide and train the younger priest. But he's horrified to witness a mutual attraction between Father Amaro and Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancon), a devoted teenage parishioner. Not that Father Benito should be casting stones; not only does he have close ties to a local drug lord, but he's also been carrying on for years with Amelia's mother (Angelica Aragon).

That's probably enough material for any movie, but screenwriter Vicente Lenero also throws in subplots

about a religious fanatic, the town's overly ambitious mayor, Amelia's jealous ex-boyfriend and others. All of which waters down the main message.

Director Carlos Carrera seems to have a problem keeping the story focused, but the cast does turn in some fine performances. Garcia Bernal is believable as the conflicted young priest, while veteran character actor Gracia makes a convincing case for giving his character more screen time.

"El Crimen del Padre Amaro (The Crime of Father Amaro)" is rated R for occasional use of strong sex-related profanity, simulated sex, violence (a stabbing and some fisticuffs), brief female nudity, frank sexual discussions, gore and use of crude slang terms. Running time: 118 minutes.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com