On the way out of the theater the other day, I heard two women chatting about Andy Garcia, star of the movie we’d just watched, For Greater Glory. Cleary they not only found Mr. Garcia hunky, they also assumed he’d written, directed, and produced the movie. No, he did not. And then one said:
“You know, the movie’s really about Obama’s attack on our religious freedom.”
Well, no to that too: filming began in 2010, well before “religious freedom” became our phrase de jour.
I was drawn to the film because of Garcia, of course, and also another of cast member, Eduardo Verástegui, because both, I’d read, are devout Catholics, but I feared it would be (as to an extent it is) the sort of special-effects dominated “noiser” you pray won’t have important scenes obscured by mind-numbing explosions, fireballs, and cannon smoke – especially so because the film is directed by first-timer Dean Wright, veteran visual-effects genius whose credits include work with James “Titanic” Cameron and Peter “Lord of the Rings” Jackson – and on the Narnia films.
And what to think of the fact that in Mexico For Greater Glory has become, as Mr. Garciasaid in a recent interview, “the second-highest-grossing film since Titanic.” Did all those movie patrons show up because of the FLASH! BANG! or was it, perhaps, because of that line of Spanish dialog you hear in the American trailer: “Viva Cristo Rey”? Hail, Christ the King! Not the sort of thing one usually hears on TV.
But I get ahead of myself.
You may already know that the film is about the 1926-1929 Cristero War (in Spanish, La Cristiada), a counter-revolutionary effort by Catholics to overthrow the secular Mexican government, which had begun enforcing anticlerical provisions of the 1917 constitution. A chilling example of those provisions is Article 30: “. . . the State and the churches are separated entities from each other. Churches and religious congregations shall be organized under the law” [emphasis added]. Pius XI condemned all of this in his 1926 encyclical, Iniquis Afflictisque, although he never actually offered support for the Cristeros.
Under Mexico’s atheist president, Plutarco Elías Calles, “church property was seized, all foreign priests expelled, and the monasteries, convents and religious schools closed.” And so the revolt, and so the film.
Mr. Verástegui has called For Greater Glory Mexico’s Schindler’s List. And as he (who is Mexican) and Mr. Garcia (who is Cuban-American) have said, the true events portrayed in the film have been overlooked for generations, even in Mexico. This may be because, in reality, few emerged from the Cristero War covered in glory, except the martyrs. (A great source for more information is the first chapter of my colleague Robert Royal’s magisterial The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive World History.)
Mr. Verástegui plays the martyr Anacleto Gonzalez Flores, who was beatified by Benedict XVI in 2005, and Mr. Garcia plays the extraordinary Enrique Gorostieta, a lifelong soldier, whose political activities had forced him to flee Mexico, first to Cuba (Mr. Garcia’s birthplace) and then to the United States (where Mr. Garcia and his family fled when he was five). Gorostieta returned to his homeland to lead the Cristeros, despite the fact that his view of religion wasn’t much different from that of Calles’. But, as he says to his wife (in the film):
“I may have issues with the Church. But I believe in religious freedom.”
Garcia portrays Gorostieta with measured, conscious restraint. This is a man who knows himself, knows his job, and knows how to lead. He is every inch a general. And so when in several scenes emotion washes over him, the effect is powerful – especially so in scenes involving the capture and later martyrdom of Blessed José Luis Sanchez (well-acted by 14-year-old Mauricio Kuri). But good as Mr. Garcia is, the show is nearly stolen by Oscar Isaac, whose mustache doesn’t seem real but whose portrayal of Victoriano “El Catorce” Ramirez is a genuinely remarkable union of faith and fury, mostly fury.
Overall though, I must say this is by no means a great film. Mr. Wright’s approach – the direction, the script, and the editing – is choppy; there’s no other word for it. And there are scenes that simply make no sense. And there are rather a lot of people looking alarmed and saying: “Run!” or “Go now!” Indeed, much of the film teeters on the edge of telenovela melodrama. James Horner’s music will swell as the camera pans up or down to reveal – what, wonder? – an ordinary landscape, it turns out, or a special-effects shot that just isn’t special. There’s much discussion among generals about how many thousands of troops will deploy in the war or how many hundreds have died in a battle, but Mr. Wright never shows us more than a skirmish. There’s no . . . epic sweep. And Eva Longoria (as the wife of Gorostieta) is wasted.
And the film fails to mention – although viewers may infer it – that in one of those unsettling ironies of history, once the Church had negotiated an agreement to begin restoration of the rights of clergy, the Vatican turned on the Cristeros and threatened excommunication to those who continued fighting for the full restoration of their human rights.
Still, as Archbishop Charles Chaput has wisely said, this is “a film that no Catholic should miss this summer. . . . For Greater Glory captures with memorable power and grace where . . . bigotry can lead – and the cost of resisting it.”
As the end credits rolled, I thought of T.S. Eliot:
We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that it will triumph.