By JANE WILSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published June 7, 2012
“For Greater Glory,” the historical epic from director Dean Wright, has much to recommend it: an inspiring true story, a positive representation of spirituality and the Catholic Church, excellent production values, and sweeping historical drama. Ultimately, however, the film falls short in creating an emotional connection to its characters, and this keeps it from being as effective as it could have been.
Set in the 1920s Mexico, “For Greater Glory” tells the story of the Cristiada, a religious civil war that tore the country apart. In 1926, the president of Mexico, Plutarco Elias Calles, began enforcing a slate of anti-clerical laws that outlawed public worship and sacraments. Catholics were vilified, and many of those disobeying the orders, including clerics, were hunted down, attacked and martyred.
In addition to non-violent protesters, a group of military rebels known as the Cristeros began fighting back against the violence. The rebellion grew on the strength of its members’ belief, and included fighters from all walks of life. Some of its leadership even came from the priesthood, and it was supported in large part by a brigade of women who organized the transport of arms and ammunition to the rebels. The motley army was eventually organized under the leadership of General Enrique Gorostieta Velarde, a retired army hero who was recruited despite his lack of religious faith.
After almost three years, and after American diplomatic intervention, the rebels reached an accord with the government. Although many of the strict anti-clerical laws remained in place, the government had agreed to permit public worship and to be more lenient in the enforcement of those laws. The aftereffects were felt for many years. Almost 90,000 people died in the war, and the Catholic Church in Mexico was devastated by the persecution.
In 1992, the Catholic Church beatified 25 martyrs from the Cristiada, mainly secular clergy who had refused to leave their posts. In 2000, these martyrs were canonized as saints. An additional 13 Cristero martyrs, mostly lay people, were also beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Among this group was young Jose Sanchez del Rio, a flag bearer for the Cristero rebels.
“For Greater Glory” tries to tell the entire broad story of the rebellion, and this is one of the problems with the film. It is a noble aspiration to tell the inclusive story of the war, but the multiple angles and myriad characters are included at the expense of depth. The storytelling and character development could have been improved with a little less ground to cover.
What the film offers, however, is a vivid, starkly beautiful depiction of Mexico in the 1920s. Filmed on location, the production values are first rate. From the dusty rebel camps to the tiny villages terrorized by the Federal troops to the elegant homes of the upper class, the costumes, scenery and cinematography transport the audience to another time and place.
The film is also admirable thematically in how it depicts people of faith, fighting for their freedom to worship. From the martyrs who paid the ultimate sacrifice to the men and women committed to helping in smaller, but still significant ways, “For Greater Glory” shows the power of belief and the positive aspects of faith in general and Catholicism in particular.
This depiction of faith rests most heavily on two of the main characters. Andy Garcia plays General Velarde, who agrees to lead the rebel troops partly for mercenary reasons and partly out of boredom with his retirement. He is not a believer, and his is not a religious fight. As he gets to know his troops, however, and as the war wears on, he begins to give more credence to their faith. His belief is strengthened further by his relationship with young Jose Sanchez del Rio (played by Mauricio Kuri), a boy who comes to fight with the Cristeros because of his extreme conviction in the Church. The film depicts Jose as a Christ-like figure, from his excruciating torture, to his forced march through his town, to his martyrdom ending in a pieta-like scene in his mother’s arms. These are two very powerful stories, and two very admirable characters, but they lose some of their power because they remain one dimensional.
The most compelling characters are two of the rebel leaders—Victoriano “El Catorce” Ramirez (Oscar Isaac) and Father Jose Reyes Vega (Santiago Carbrera). Each has a specific scene in which to shine. For Ramirez, it comes when he earns his nickname by taking down 14 federal troops single-handedly, and for Vega it is in the final days of the rebellion when he faces seemingly impossible odds with Velarde in a standoff scene reminiscent of “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.” These two very different men come to play vital roles in the rebellion, but again, the film loses some of its emotional potential by not giving them more defined motivation and more in-depth characterization. Indeed, the list of actors in “For Greater Glory” is impressive—Eva Longoria, Peter O’Toole, Ruben Blades, Catalina Sandino Morena, Nestor Carbonell, Bruce Greenwood, Eduardo Verastegui—but with so many characters and such a huge story, it is virtually impossible to appreciate all the characters.
Despite its flaws, however, “For Greater Glory” is a quality film about an important, and often overlooked, time in the church’s history. If you are looking for a movie with a positive faith message and an interesting story, then “For Greater Glory” is where you should look. Note, however, that in its realistic depiction of a violent subject matter, the film is not suitable for all ages.