For Greater Glory tells the story of the Mexican government’s attempt to stamp out the Catholic Church under President Calles (played by Ruben Blades), and the uprising that followed, a civil war that killed 90,000 people. Calles attempted to enforce the anti-clerical laws put into Mexico’s 1917 socialist Constitution by demanding the expulsion of foreign priests, banning public demonstrations of faith (including the wearing of clerical garb), and making criticism of the government by priests punishable by five years in prison. A boycott organized by the Catholic Church prompted Calles to get even tougher, and open war broke out. Enrique Gorostieta (Andy Garcia), a general who had fought for the winning side in the revolution, chose to lead the Cristero rebellion, and the film focuses mainly on Gorostieta, two of his lieutenants, and a young boy named Jose Sanchez del Rio, who was later beatified by the Catholic Church.
Back in March, I was fortunate enough to see a rough cut of the film, and wrote a semi-official review at the time (from which I borrowed the synopsis above) with the caveat that I would wait to see the theatrical release. Last night, my wife and I saw it in its limited Twin Cities release, and the final cut has significantly improved the narrative flow of the film. One of the few areas of concern I had from the rough cut was the difficulty in following the constant shifting between subplots in the first half of the film, and some ambiguity about the intent in some scenes. Those problems were resolved nicely, with additional footage in some areas and smoother transitions throughout.
The cast does a terrific job in bringing the historical figures to life. Mauricio Kuri delivers a heartwrenching performance as Jose Luis Sanchez del Rio, later beatified and canonized by the Catholic Church as a martyr. Garcia is every bit as good, while Blades gives a nuanced and effective performance as Calles. Santiago Cabrera presents Father Vega as a terribly conflicted priest/general who is at times unable to face those contradictions honestly, but retains his humanity and his faith to the very end. We don’t get to see enough of Eduardo Verastegui plays another canonized martyr, Anacleto Gonzales Flores, but what we do see of the Verastegui’s performance of the man who tried to fight Calles without force is impressive. Eva Longoria gets top billing but doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but has a couple of key scenes with Garcia that frames the conflicting tensions between Gorostieta’s estrangement from the Catholic Church and his desire for absolute liberty. Oscar Isaac is especially good as Victoriano “El Catorce” Ramirez, and provides both humor and tragedy.
When we went to the theater last night, I was pleasantly surprised to find a half-full theater. By the end, we could hear audience members crying behind us, which started in earnest with the martyrdom of Jose, a difficult scene which recalls Braveheart in some aspects, as does the rest of the film. No one left the theater until the credits were almost finished, and almost everyone stuck around all the way to the end. People barely spoke until they got out to the hallway outside the theater. That was a testimony to the power of For Greater Glory.
Like most good historical films, For Greater Glory challenges the audience to consider the meaning of history and the conflicts involved rather than just give a rote retelling. The scenes between Garcia and Cabrera are especially good, as they touch on the very nature of faith and the conflict between faith and the fallen world. What does it mean to serve God? Can great good eventually come out of great evil, and if so, why? How does one serve God in evil times, or even in merely contentious times? Is religion a pastime for Sundays, or a way of life for every moment of our lives? The film doesn’t provide the answers as much as it shows the main characters struggling with the questions, and actors such as Garcia, Cabrera, Kuri, and Verastegui provide vibrant performances to spark contemplation of these questions among the viewers. That alone makes it worthwhile for me, but it’s a gripping film regardless.
I’d highly recommend seeing this in the theater — now, before it gets pushed off screens for more summer blockbusters. For Greater Glory is rated R for violence. It’s too intense for younger children. Older teenagers would probably be able to handle it, although the realistic nature and history of the violence puts it on a level that may make them very uncomfortable.