A Film For Our Time, and All Times
No one, surely, Venerable Brothers, can hazard a prediction or foresee in imagination the hour when the good God will bring to an end such calamities. We do know this much: The day will come when the Church of Mexico will have respite from this veritable tempest of hatred, for the reason that, according to the words of God “there is no wisdom, there is no prudence, there is no counsel against the Lord” (Prov. xxi, 30) and “the gates of hell shall not prevail” (Matt. xvi, 18) against the Spotless Bride of Christ.
Pius XI, INIQUIS AFFLICTISQUE
I knew that my viewing of For Greater Glory was going to be something special when two Dominican nuns, in habits, came out of the showing before the one my family and I attended and one of them remarked to me that it was a very powerful film. I replied that we were looking forward to seeing it. Well, that wasn’t completely true. My worldly, jaded 17 year old daughter would much have preferred to have been back home killing zombies online with her internet chums. By the end of the film she was weeping over the scene in which 14 year old Blessed José Sánchez del Río, stunningly portrayed by Mauricio Kuri, was martyred. I did not blame her. I have not been so deeply moved by a film since I saw The Passion of the Christ.
Before we go any farther, I should announce the obligatory spoiler alert. I will be mentioning plot elements that people who have not seen the film might not wish to have revealed to them. For those wishing to continue on, if you have not read my initial post here on the historical background of the Cristeros War, you might find it helpful to look at it before reading this review.
Like most truly great works of art, For Greater Glory has strong religious themes. The defense of the Church against the anti-clerical policies of the Mexican government is an obvious one, but there are others. How to believe in a just and loving God in a world where hideous crimes, often unpunished, are perpetrated on good people? When may a Christian, even a priest, take up arms? How is evil to be defeated unless men are willing to fight? These are not easy questions, and the film, to its credit, gives no easy answers.
The film visually is incredibly beautiful. The look of Mexico in the twenties of the last century is captured almost perfectly, even by my hyper critical eyes for historical accuracy. The musical score is moving without being overbearing. Masters of the film craft were obviously at the top of their game in the production of this film. It reminded me of some of the best of the historical Technicolor epics of Hollywood of the Golden Age, but unmarred by the obvious historical errors of detail that usually beset those films.
The performances are superb. Special mention should be made of Peter O’Toole, who, as Father Christopher at the beginning of the film, gives us a vision of wise and kind priest who speaks the words, “There is no greater glory than dying for Christ.”, and proves that his words are not mere words.
Mauricio Kuri as Blessed José Sánchez del Río steals every scene he is in, and is the center of the most emotional scene in an intensely emotional film.
Andy Garcia, as General Enrique Gorostieta Velarde, the atheist mercenary hired to lead the Cristeros because he was a brilliant general, is absolutely convincing in his role. The film shows him transforming the Cristeros bands into a trained Cristeros army and leading them to amazing victories against Federal forces. The film also shows that leading the Cristeros was a path of redemption for General Gorostieta. First, professionally: after he backed one of the losing factions in the Mexican Revolution Gorostieta was leading a dull life as a soap manufacturer when he received the offer to lead the Cristeros. Secondly, and infinitely more importantly, spiritually. His wife, played by Eva Longoria, who gives a surprisingly solid performance, is portrayed as a devout Catholic, appalled by the anti-Catholic actions of the Mexican government. Gorostieta does not share her faith, but does value freedom above all else and fights with the Cristeros in the name of freedom. By the end of the film he asks to be confessed and goes to God as a believing Catholic, his redemption complete.
Every great film needs a great villian and Ruben Blades gives a superb performance as Mexican President Plutarco Calles. The actual Calles was a rougher and darker figure than Blades’ portrayal, but his depiction of Calles as a somewhat oily and cynical politician is effective.
The film is filled with battle sequences that accurately depict the guerilla war waged by the Cristeros. The film harrowingly illustrates the atrocities of the Federales, especially their charming habit of hanging Cristeros from telegraph and telephone poles. In the film American Ambassador Dwight Morrow, portrayed effectively by Bruce Greenwood, is shown as fairly cynical as he attempts to broker a deal with representatives of the Pope to end the conflict, until he catches a glimpse of Cristero bodies in the distance hanging from poles and has to excuse himself for a minute before losing his composure.
Like any film about a historical event, artistic license was taken with history. I never like this, although I tried not to be too irritated while I was viewing the film since I greatly enjoyed it. Here are some of the historical inaccuracies:
Father José Reyes Vega is one of the main characters in the film and is depicted as a good priest who reluctantly takes up arms and becomes a Cristero general. The actual Vega was a disgrace as a priest, who routinely broke his vows of chastity and was merciless in his treatment of Federales luckless enough to fall into his untender mercies. He was a very effective general. His greatest crime was burning a train filled with civilians after his brother died in taking the train. The film depicts this as an accident, alas that was not the case.
I am puzzled that the film made Father Vega such a front and center character since there was another Cristero general, Father Aristeo Pedroza, who was not only a great leader, but a fine priest. At the end of the film General Enrique Gorostieta Velarde confesses to Father Vega in a moving scene. Unfortunately I found this amusing since Gorostieta actually once mocked one of his subordinates who attempted to bring him back to the Faith, before he did return, by asking if he should confess to Father Vega, a humorous slam at the suggestion since Vega was an obvious disgrace as a priest.
Alas, there was no killing of the murderers of Blessed José Sánchez del Río, immediately after his martyrdom, by General Gorostieta.
There was no meeting between President Calles and Gorostieta as depicted at the end of the film.
However, these historical errors should only bother a history nerd like me. The film gets the tone of the Cristero war pitch perfect, with Catholics battling against overwhelming odds to protect their Church and their freedom, and often paying a terrible price to do so. Faith and freedom are precious gifts, and unless we have the spine to stand up for them when needs be, they can vanish like a mirage in the desert. That makes For Greater Glory an important film for 2012 and for every year.