For Greater Glory tells a story of religious freedom and oppression that is far too little known, and that would be important and worthwhile at any time, but is strikingly apropos in our cultural moment. The Cristero War of 1926 to 1929 (Cristiada) was one of the largest insurgencies in Western history.
Yet Americans in general, even Catholics and those of Mexican heritage, remain largely ignorant of this period of brutal suppression and desperate resistance, not to mention the long and contentious history of church-state antagonism in Mexico surrounding it.
For Greater Glory (Cristiada in Mexico) redresses this neglect. One of the most lavish and ambitious films ever produced in Mexico, it’s a breakthrough achievement for producer Pablo José Barroso, previously responsible for the curious but dull Guadalupe and the pious but flawed The Greatest Miracle. It’s also a milestone for faith-based productions generally: a sweeping and handsome epic, with strong performances, solid production values and magnificent locations across Mexico.
Its scope, early 20th-century Latin wartime milieu and Spanish-accented English dialogue invite comparison to There Be Dragons — but where that film centered on a dull protagonist and offered no real picture of the shape of the Spanish Civil War, For Greater Glory follows an ensemble cast through key events of the Cristero War. It’s not exactly a history lesson, but neither is it a historical fable à la Braveheart (though it’s no less pointed in celebrating one side and vilifying the other).
Opening titles and early scenes sketch some of the background: The 1917 Mexican Constitution included harsh anticlerical provisions that went unenforced until the regime of Plutarco Elías Calles, a fervent atheist, Freemason and virulent enemy of the Church. In 1926, Calles introduced legislation — the “Calles Law” — specifying penalties for violating the constitutional prohibitions: Clergy could be imprisoned for criticizing the government, fined for wearing clerical garb in public, and so forth. Calles also moved to seize church property, close Catholic schools, seminaries and monasteries, as well as deport foreign priests.
Andy Garcia plays Enrique Gorostieta Velarde, an accomplished general-turned-businessman whose devout wife, Tulita (Eva Longoria), is worried about their daughters’ religious upbringing in the current environment. When Tulita refuses to be comforted, Gorostieta asks defensively, “What do you want me to do?”
What indeed. Gorostieta opposes Calles’ excesses and favors a regime of greater religious freedom, even though he’s an unbeliever — in fact, like Calles, he’s an anticlerical Freemason, though the film doesn’t spell this out. Now established as a soap manufacturer, Gorostieta is prosperous, but bored and ripe for a challenge. There’s a nice moment when Gorostieta is approached by a representative of the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty (LNDLR), which stands behind the Cristeros — this name reflects the rebels’ inspiration: Cristo Rey (Christ the King).
Initially dismissive of the ragtag rebels, Gorostieta is caught short by the representative’s parting question and gesture: Taking a cake of soap from Gorostieta’s desk, the man sniffs it appraisingly. Is Mexico’s greatest general content to live out his days producing pink soap?
Like many faith-based productions, For Greater Glory could have benefitted from a less heavy hand and more subtlety: less exposition, less intrusive scoring, more nuanced characters and more complexity all around. For the most part, everyone does and says exactly what one would expect of a character like them. Priests are executed and children tortured and murdered, and not a single federale troop involved shows the slightest hesitation or conflict; every priest is devout, and every executed priest and layman dies with edifying grace.
Peter O’Toole has a small but notable role as a foreign-born cleric named Father Christopher whose kindness and heroic virtue make a lasting impression on a youth named José Luis Sanchez (likable Mauricio Kuri, a Mexico City native). In another small role, Bella star Eduardo Verastegui plays Anacleto Gonzalez Flores, a lawyer who supports peaceful means of resistance to Calles’ campaign. Sanchez and Flores were beatified as martyrs by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Sanchez’s martyrdom is almost a miniature Passion of the Christ, complete with Pietà shot.
Father José Reyes Vega (Santiago Cabrera), an important Cristero general, takes up arms, contrary to the demands of his clerical state. Other than that, he is a picture of piety — in marked contrast to the historical Vega, a notorious libertine whose most infamous crime, involving a train holdup, is depicted here as an accident and then forgotten with unseemly haste. Gorostieta displays some complexity as a leader fighting on behalf of a faith he doesn’t share but is willing to appropriate for his purposes. He wears a large crucifix and uses “God talk” with the troops, though it’s not always clear whether, or how, he believes what he’s saying or when he starts to believe it.
When Father Vega says Mass at one point, Gorostieta pointedly sits aside, smoking a cigar. Yet rubbing elbows with God has a way of changing a person, and Gorostieta’s imperceptible transition toward faith is credibly depicted, whether or not it’s historical.
The film’s most intriguing character is a rugged rancher named Victoriano Ramirez (Oscar Isaacs, The Nativity Story), nicknamed El Catorce (The 14) in honor of an incident involving an ill-fated posse sent to kill him. Ramirez is basically a thug, but a thug with some noble impulses, and his character has the greatest potential for moral corruption or redemption. That sequence involving the posse is one of the film’s best action sequences, along with an ambush in a sleepy pueblo.
Probably the effective aspect of the film is its mixed depiction of the role of the Mexican hierarchy, the United States and even the Vatican. Early on, we hear that the Vatican is taking too long to weigh in on the Calles laws, though that’s quickly rectified. Bruce Greenwood is effortlessly authoritative as U.S. ambassador Edward Morrow, a charming and effective negotiator whose main concern in Mexico is U.S. oil interests, though he gradually becomes aware of the enormity of what is occurring. Morrow helped negotiate the tragic deal between Calles and the Church leadership that ended the Cristero Rebellion. The Cristeros were essentially sold out, and Calles conceded almost nothing to the Church, even breaking his promise of amnesty and proceeding to execute more Cristeros than died in the war itself.
The ambiguity with which the Cristero conflict ended is indicated in the film, though the desire for a triumphant climax somewhat blunts what might have been more effective as a tragic ending (à la The Mission).
Visiting Mexico earlier this year, Pope Benedict XVI highlighted ongoing restrictions on religious freedom in Mexico’s constitution. In the United States, the U.S. bishops have made a top priority the defense of religious freedom against encroaching federal tyranny on a host of fronts, from immoral health-care mandates to acquiescence to same-sex "marriage."
The magnitude of the conflict around religious freedom today is something no one could have predicted when production began on For Greater Glory.
Some might call the film’s timing providential. I wouldn’t argue with them. For Greater Glory is the right movie at the right time.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic.
Content Advisory: Graphic wartime violence, including torture/executions of youths and clergy; clerical participation in war violence; desecration of churches and sacred articles. Could be too intense for younger teens.