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.  Second, 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.

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14 Comments

  1. I so much want to see it as I shake my head at puddle-deep strident rhetoric about constitutional problems in our country. http://www.courant.com/news/opinion/hc-op-casey-catholic-church-ignores-individuals-co-20120601,0,4866539.story

  2. That article is beneath contempt. But then I heard some strange stories about the political leadership in Connecticut trying to coerce the Catholic Church and coming second in a two-side clash, so maybe someone is carrying a grudge.

    • I am not in CT so that I don’t know. A round peg in a round hole I suspect. Her evidence starts and stops at her personal experiences and the opinions of other round pegs.

    • My post on the unsuccessful attempt by certain members of the Connecticut legislatur back in 2009 to regulate the Catholic Church.

      http://the-american-catholic.com/2009/03/10/victory-in-connecticut/

      • Oh that’s breathtaking. I doubt that even my younger sister would have endorsed 1098 and I don’t see it in a google. She is the author. Issues, oh boy. Objectivity has been no object.

    • So I went to see it and it was good. The critics panned it but the audience rating is much higher and I can see why. Some breathtaking scenery and what appears to be an accurate portrayal of the fashions and makeup of the 20s. The pace is slow at times and wants editing. There is virtually nothing about the Why behind the federal government’s deportation of priests and the execution by firing squad or hanging of other priests. And the escalation into busting into Mass to massacre attendants in their pews.

      But maybe that is the point. There is no Why when a government goes bad, is there? It made my hair stand straight up on end and my blood rush and I itched for the feel of the stock of my Mossberg 20-gauge against my shoulder and my finger on the trigger. And I was an ordinary person watching a movie.

      This is a film about beautified martyrs, a Catholic tradition, and that in addition to the pace are reasons behind why the secular media is not fond of it. You are right that it raises the question of why God’s will, permitting or ordaining, enables evil, whether killing is the right response, and it has no answers. It portrays factually that the killing did end because of the killing, brokered by the Mexican & US governments and the Vatican. Oh and for economic reasons — follow the $ as usual — who would do business in Mexico it you have to duck and with all these bodies hanging from telegraph poles? How would US companies recoup their petroleum investments? A new head of government and a turnaround in a few years. The killing ended because of the killing.

      The acting is seethingly focused and Garcia does some fine target practice before and after his redemption. Following his military strategy and tactics is an exercise in thinking things through — I see! A thing of wonder.

      As bad and weird as things can be, none of our lives or those ofour loved ones are on the line, and none of us have had to consider whether to put our lives on the line. Isn’t that true?

      • I believe that the film has been cut down Kathleen from approximately three and a half hours. I hope the Bluray when it eventually comes out will have the restored footage, which, I suspect, may have some background as to why Calles went to war with the Church.

  3. I assume you know that there have been a couple of other great movies on the same period, both drawn from Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory. Apparently Greene had to literally flee the United States in 1938 after writing an angry review of a Shirley Temple movie which as good as stated that there was a paedophile subtext to it, went to Mexico because there was no extradition treaty, and ended up in the state of Tabasco, where the persecution had been particularly savage. He was so struck by what he saw that he not only wrote his masterpiece but began his own conversion into Catholicism.

    • To correct, he didn’t have to flee the States – it was his own native Britain! The studio were so enraged by the review that they had tried to have him arrested. Then as now, free speech in Britain is a lot less free than people imagine.

    • Indeed Fabio! Here is a tribute video to John Ford’s The Fugitive (1947):

  4. Here’s my non-Catholic (Mormon) perspective:

    I saw it yesterday. As a friend of mine observed, there must have been some smoke in the theater, because our eyes kept tearing up.

    The music and the filming were fantastic, as were some of the performances. As mentioned above, the Jose Sanchez del Rio character was played extremely, extremely well. But Peter O’Toole’s performance was literally breathtaking. That was one of the few times I’ve seen an old person of that type actually portrayed on the screen. It was totally riveting. The scene with him and Joselito and the pocketwatch, and the pre-martyrdom scene, are as good as anything I’ve scene anywhere. Both were great art.

    Also, not knowing the historical background of the Father Vega character, I was impressed with the scene where he accidentally burnt a bunch of people. It added a little nuance and credibility.

    However, the film was good but not great. I thought the screenplay needed a couple more rewrites, or the film needed more editing. Too many different things were going on in the plot. For example, the sense of betrayal in the Rome-Mexico concordat, while historical, didn’t really fit in the movie. If you really wanted to include it, you’d need to play the Cristiada as a partial temporal failure but spiritual victory, but that really wasn’t how the movie treated it. I would have appreciated more time on the General’s conversion and on his affection for Jose. Both just . . . happened. I also would have cut the General’s continued references to ‘absolute freedom,’ which were jarringly silly. His lines needed a little doctoring. I also thought his acting was mediocre. His repeated stabbing gesture with his left hand got on my nerves after awhile. ‘Viva Cristo Rey’ was also repeated too much as a watchword and all purpose greeting. It needed to be in there some for accuracy, but the constant repetition annoyed and detracted a little bit from Joselito’s martyrdom scene, since it made the phrase seem like a slogan and not a confession of faith. To take one instance, when the General finally confesses himself and is asked how he feels, he shouldn’t have said ‘Viva Cristo Rey’ in the casual manner he did. He should have said it as a big spiritual production, a real affirmation of faith, or he should have said ‘it feels like flying,’ a reference to Joselito’s line earlier about riding the prize war horse.

    That said, picking the General as the focus of the movie, to the extent there was a focus, was a pretty smart move.

    I also really appreciated the historical photos of real cristeros at the end, giving them the honor they are due.

    So a good film but not great because of a haphazard plot.

    P.S. What you say about the real Father Vega reminds me of the scene where he is conducting some of the Catholic women helping the Cristeros into a tent and delivers an encomium on how helpful they are to the cause. Your historical information suggests that the scene was something of wink, wink for the historically informed.

    • Great review Adam! I have a letter from a granddaugher of General Gorostieta that I will be publishing tomorrow, and she has some insights into her grandfather that do not come out in the film.

  5. By the way, the actor who portrayed Joselito has an eery resemblance to some of the photos of the real man you’ll find in an image search. Spooky.

    • Precisely what I thought Adam when I saw the film. Look at this video:


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