It’s opening day in the US for a widely-anticipated film that recounts a war of which few have even heard. For Greater Glory has already opened to packed houses and long lines in Mexico for the past month, as many filmgoers connect with a part of their nation’s history that has rarely been discussed. The film stars Andy Garcia as Enrique Gorostieta, an agnostic who took up the cause of religious freedom when the socialist government of President Plutarco Calles (Ruben Blades) tries to suppress the Catholic Church, provoking a civil war (called the Cristiada or Cristero War) that lasted for three years.
When the production of For Greater Glory began a couple of years ago, no one could have known that the film would have direct relevance to current events. Thanks to the battle between the Obama administration and religious groups (including and especially the Catholic bishops) over the HHS contraception/sterilization mandate, the issue of government defining religious expression has become acute in the US. That will undoubtedly drive more traffic to the theaters, as well as keep the mandate on the front political burner all summer long.
Critics, thus far, are dismissing the film. It gets only a 17% “freshness” rating at the critic-aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, although the audience rating is 73%, with an average rating of 3.9 points on a five-point scale. The New York Times is among the more generous, with some praise and criticism:
The movie is a much softer echo of fervent 1950s blockbusters with religious themes, like “The Robe,” set at the dawn of Christianity, in which humble true believers who are ready to sacrifice their lives for their faith stand up to their godless oppressors. The best of those quasi-biblical movies still have the power to stir the blood and elicit tears. Mel Gibson has more recently made angrier and gorier versions of the same thing.
There may be no miracles or choirs of angels here, but religiosity, although restrained, is pervasive. Pablo José Barroso, the film’s producer, founded Dos Corazones Films, a Mexican production company that the press notes state was “created as part of a ministry that produces films to convey messages of faith and family values.”
Dean Wright, who directed “For Greater Glory” from a screenplay by Michael Love, was the visual effects wizard behind the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. This movie, which was filmed on many of the actual sites of the conflict, is impressively spacious. The expansive scale and brisk but unhurried editing keep “For Greater Glory” from stumbling over itself and becoming a bloated, grandiose exhibition of righteous saber rattling. The symphonic score by James Horner confers an inspirational mood that is uplifting without being syrupy.
Even if “For Greater Glory” is considerably more sophisticated than some of its forerunners, its characters are clear-cut saints and sinners. To its credit, the film acknowledges the political history leading up to the war and the bargaining behind the scenes. Bruce Greenwood plays Dwight Morrow, the United States ambassador to Mexico, dispatched from Washington to protect American oil interests while brokering a peace.
But the diplomacy is just a footnote to the struggle for religious freedom.
Such things were on my mind as I watched “For Greater Glory,” a movie about the Cristeros, or “soldiers for Christ,” who fought against religious persecution by the Mexican government from 1926 to 1929. The movie starts with laws which encroach upon religious freedom relatively benignly, such as not allowing the public wear of religious symbols. The Mexican government then moves to decry foreigners who allegedly control the nation’s citizens, particularly the Vatican, and rounds up all foreign-born bishops and priests to force them to leave the country. Peaceful rallies and protests are responded to with military force, which leads to an economic boycott.
The boycott is the last straw for Mexican President Plutarco Elías Calles. Ignoring the counsel of his advisers, he begins invading churches and killing Catholic priests and parishioners. This leads to protests of various forms, from peacefully marching in the streets to violent rebellion. At the heart of the entire movie are a teenage boy who sees his mentor shot before his eyes, an atheist whose wife’s Catholic faith and his own belief in religious freedom cause him to lead the rebellion, a woman whose network of faithful Catholic women is critical to the rebellion’s early formation, a rebel whose legendary fighting skills are matched by his disdain for authority, and a priest whose violent leadership in the rebellion causes a great deal of spiritual uncertainty.
As a movie, “For Greater Glory” isn’t a bad watch. It is rated R for violence and graphic imagery (a number of lynched bodies are seen hanging, for example, throughout the film). However, it often struggles to capture and hold the viewer’s emotions. In aiming to fully develop over half-a-dozen major characters, often through individual scenes and interactions with secondary and lower-ranked characters, the movie comes across as a bit of a whirlwind.
Be sure to read it all. Above all, I’d also tell readers to see the film for yourself. It’s a visually lush, thematically bold production that tells an important story about religious freedom and its cost — and in a sense, the cost to maintain liberty in general. The cast is superb, and the story will grip audiences. Even though the version I saw is quite close to the version that went into release today, I plan on seeing it again at the theater this weekend.
I interviewed Andy Garcia about the film a month ago: