by Patrick B. McGuigan
Once upon a time in Mexico (1926-29), the government of President Plutarco Elias Calles, driven by revolutionary anti-religious fervor at the height of Western flirtation with Marxist maxims, added explicitly anti-Catholic language to the national constitution. This led to the executions of some priests, expelling of others, a ban on public celebration of the Sacraments, and suppression of religious freedom.
The new film “For Greater Glory” lays out the story of those troubled years from a perspective deeply sympathetic to the rebel movement “Cristeros” (soldiers for Christ) formed by peasants and elements of the national elite in solidarity of faith.
The story’s narrative tilts strongly against Calles (portrayed effectively by Ruben Blades). However, it does not hide the horrors of war, including in the actions of Father Vega (portrayed by Santiago Cabrera), a warrior-priest and one of the film’s most compelling characters.
Andy Garia portrays Enrique Gorostieta, an effective military leader who had previously served his nation. He is recruited to lead the rebels. He reluctantly responds, ultimately fashioning an effective military force. Garcia takes his character from agnostic indifference to reborn faith in a compelling and effective manner.
At 2 hours and 23 minutes, and rated R for its violence and intensity, director Dean Wright allows time for character development and understanding of plot lines, including tensions between pacifist idealists hoping to oppose tyranny without resort to arms, and a peasant Army the aristocratic Gorostieta’s eventually made powerful enough to compel restoration of government tolerance.
Eva Longoria is beautiful as Enrique’s devoted (and believably devout) wife, Tulita. She is perplexed by his willingness to fight in defense of her Church, but he explains it as his devotion to freedom. As the story unfolds, however, the miraculous successes of his soldiers leads General Gorostieta to say with them “Viva Cristo Rey!” (Long live Christ the King). Eventually, he actually believes that.
The most stellar performance, other than Garcia himself, comes from Mauricio Kuri, who portrays Jose Luis Sanchez, a boy who joins the Cristeros after the death of Father Christopher (Peter O’Toole, in an early cameo that kicks the story into high gear). Kuri is absolutely superb.
Other strong performances come from Oscar Isaac (bandito turned freedom fighter), Eduado Verastegui (pacifist), Nestor Carbonell (government collaborator), Catalina Sandino Moreno (one in the brave Army of “Saint Joans” who supply the rebels with ammunition) and Bruce Greenwood (as the American ambassador who brokers an imperfect peace).
The little-known story is adapted from the 1976 history by Jean Meyer, “The Cristero Rebellion.” While lost to American national memory for decades, at the time the Cristero’s cause was championed by the Knights of Columbus, members of Congress and some editorial pages across the land.
The movie opened strongly last month in Mexico, yet is viewed unfavorably by some (but not all) American film critics. One national critic published in Oklahoma City’s daily missed a crucial element of the film, asserting the story missed excesses committed by the rebels. This assertion seems to miss an atrocity portrayed as taking place on Father Vega’s watch – a point of contention between Gorostieta and the priest as the story unfolds.
In the end, the Mexican government relented and Mexico’s Catholic people were again able to worship freely. However, nearly every leader of the rebel Army was eventually killed. Their sacrifices, however, made their nation a better country, for a time. Ultimately, the Church has recognized many of the Cristeros through beautification.
“For Greater Glory” is a noble and well-made film, from producer Pablo Jose Barroso, with a script by Michael Love. It joins the list of rare films that powerfully evoke an era gone by, filled with faulted yet heroic persons whose lives continue to provide both admonition and inspiration.