HOLLYWOOD — When the film For Greater Glory opens this weekend, it will tell the largely unknown story of religious persecution that occurred in our own hemisphere within the past century.
The Mexican-made movie tells the tale of the Cristero Rebellion, the Mexican peasant uprising against an oppressive government that took place between 1926 and 1929.
In his 1926 encyclical Iniquis Afflictisque, Pope Pius XI denounced the forces of “barbarism” that led to Mexican President Plutarco Calles’ persecution of Catholics and the Church.
The film opened in Mexico on April 20 with the title Cristiada. It opened in first place in gross for all admissions at the box office in Mexico. Producer Pablo Barroso said that not only is the story new for American theatergoers, it was for its Mexican audience as well.
“[Teaching about it] was banned,” said Barroso. “As a child growing up in Mexico in the 1970s, I didn’t learn anything about it. As I go around the country, people don’t know about the conflict. This was new to at least 70% of the people in Mexico.”
The Cristero War was the direct by-product of Calles’ implementation of the anti-clerical laws written into the 1917 Constitution. Calles expelled foreign priests and bishops, confiscated Church property and closed Catholic schools. When the archbishop of Mexico City spoke out publicly against the government’s actions, his residence and the chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe were bombed. Tensions led to a three-year war between government soldiers against the faithful, many of them ranchers and landowners.
The film follows the characters of Gen. Enrique Gorostieta (Andy Garcia), an atheist who is recruited by the Cristeros, the name given to the peasants because they fought for Cristo Rey (Christ the King), to organize them and lead their army, and Blessed Jose Sanchez del Rio (Mauricio Kuri), a Mexican boy who was martyred during the rebellion.
The film is Dean Wright’s directorial debut. He previously worked on Titanic, The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia.
“The film focuses on the themes of faith and sacrifice,” said Wright. “While General Gorostieta was an atheist, his family told me that he believed in religious freedom no matter your faith. He felt you had the right to believe in God and worship God.”
The all-star cast includes not only Garcia, but also Eva Longoria, who plays his wife. Oscar winner Peter O’Toole plays an elderly foreign priest, Father Christopher; Ruben Blades plays Calles; Eduardo Verastegui plays Blessed Anacleto Gonzalez Flores, and Bruce Greenwood portrays Dwight Morrow, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico.
Verastegui, the star of Bella, was working on another film when he was approached with the script. He described the film as the Schindler’s List of Mexico. He chose the part of Anacleto Flores because it was a smaller part and he was inspired by the real life of the character.
“He was fighting back with peaceful means,” said Verastegui. “The character challenged me and made me ask, Am I willing to die for something bigger than myself?”
Since his success with Bella, Verastegui opened Guadalupe Medical Center, a pro-life crisis-pregnancy center in Los Angeles, where he frequently sidewalk counsels. Verastegui said that he hopes the film will inspire audiences as well.
“My hope is that people will leave entertained and with a spark in their heart not to be afraid to be heroes,” he said. “I hope they’ll leave inspired to do the right thing — to love more, to forgive, to learn from the mistakes of the past and to be ready to die to self.”
Relevant and Timely
For Greater Glory is “an incredibly resonant story of religious liberty,” said Andrew Walther, vice president for communications with the Knights of Columbus, who are mentioned in the film. Of the more than 200,000 people killed during the fighting, more than 70 were members of the Knights of Columbus. Nine of them, along with 29 other martyrs, have been either beatified or canonized.
“The shooting started Aug. 3, 1926, and, within days, the Knights had our Supreme Convention in Philadelphia condemning what was happening — and within weeks had met with President Calvin Coolidge,” explained Walther. “The Knights raised $1 million for humanitarian assistance to victims of the persecution, and seminaries were set up in the U.S. where displaced seminarians could continue their studies.”
Walther noted that the persecution led to the first wave of Mexican immigration to the U.S. “One million Mexicans fled to the U.S. This was where people could come to practice their faith.”
Jean Meyer, a French historian who became a Mexican citizen after interviewing hundreds of former Cristeros in the 1960s, authored the 1976 history The Cristero Rebellion.
“Meyer had planned to write a Marxist version of the story, but what he found out after interviewing more than 70 people involved is that it was a crusade or uprising largely by landowning peasants in west-central Mexico against the anti-Catholic government,” said Christopher Check, executive vice president of the Rockford Institute, who has lectured on the topic.
Check said that there are many parallels between the genocide against Catholics during the late 1700s in the Vendee region of France and what took place in Mexico.
“The parallels are extraordinary,” said Check. “Both rebellions were predominantly by peasant landowners in rural areas that were centers of religious fervor. The area where most of the fighting took place in Mexico is called the Mexican Vendee.”
Check said that it’s an important story for Americans to know, especially because of the current threats to religious liberty in the U.S.
“American knowledge of Mexican history is very poor,” said Check. “American Catholics especially have a duty to know this story, because, unlike the history of the U.S., Mexican history is Catholic history from its founding.”
The $40-million film has received high praise, by both Catholics and non-Catholics.
“For Greater Glory vividly depicts the difficult circumstances in which Catholics of that time lived — and died for — their faith,” said Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez. “It is a top-flight production whose message of the importance of religious freedom has particular resonance for us today. It is my earnest hope that people of faith throughout our country will rally behind For Greater Glory and, in doing so, will highlight the importance of religious freedom in our society.”
“[It’s] a compelling, thoughtful homage to religious freedom,” said Phil Boatwright, a movie critic who works with the Baptist Press and operates the website PreviewOnline.org. “This action-adventure has style and heart and forthrightly depicts the need for faith. Replete with epic scale and thematic power, it stands a good chance of being remembered come Oscar time.”
Young actor Mauricio Kuri, who plays Blessed Jose Sanchez in the film, said that the young martyr’s story should be known by more people.
“The world needs to know about him and his story,” said Kuri. “We know about the persecution by the Nazis, the Chinese and in Cuba, but we don’t know about this. The movie is a good opportunity for people to learn about this.”
Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.